When Venus Williams played her first professional tennis match in 1994 at the sprightly, young age of 14, Garbine Muguruza had just celebrated turning a year old. On Saturday, almost 23 years later, they will clash in the final of Wimbledon.
Venus, at the age of 37, is attempting to become the oldest female player in the Open Era to lift a Grand Slam trophy. If she wins on Saturday, she would have surpassed even Martina Navratilova, who has been the paragon of longevity in this sport.
The American isn’t just defying time and age with every match that she wins, she is also flouting the limitations of her own body. Venus was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, Sjögren's syndrome, which causes fatigue and muscle pain. For any other athlete this could have spelt the end of their career, for Venus it was another challenge that she had to overcome.
From 2011 to 2014, Venus failed to make it past the fourth round of any Slam. She looked tired and listless on court, and many critics had written her off. Sure, she could continue to play with an energy-sapping physical condition, but most people doubted if she could ever compete again at the highest level.
Over the last four years, Venus has proven every detractor wrong. She has won multiple titles, returned to the top 10, and is the only player on the WTA tour to have consistently made the second week of the last six Majors. She reached the semi-final at Wimbledon 2016, final at Australian Open 2017 and made her ninth Wimbledon final this week.
In her previous 15 Grand Slam finals, Venus has only been beaten by sister Serena, and once by Martina Hingis way back in 1997. With Serena skipping the tournament due to her pregnancy, this is the best opportunity for Venus to win a Grand Slam title. Standing in her way is the 2015 finalist Muguruza.
The 23-year-old Spaniard won her maiden Grand Slam trophy at Roland Garros last year. The title win was expected to be a breakthrough of sorts for Muguruza, and catapult her to greater heights. But Muguruza failed to make any final in the next twelve months.
The talented Spaniard has a wide array of weapons at her disposal – her booming serve, her thundering groundstrokes, her swinging volleys at the net, her ability to dominate from both wings and her natural all-surface game. Her only weakness has been consistency.
The Mallorcan has been unable to perform at her best for weeks or even multiple rounds at a stretch. She has suffered uncharacteristic losses – the most recent being her 6-1, 6-0 defeat at the hands of Barbora Strycova before Wimbledon at the warm-up event at Eastbourne.
Over the last fortnight, though, Muguruza has rediscovered the explosive form that helped her reach the final in 2015, where she lost to Serena in straight sets. She has proven that when she is on a hot streak, she can be unstoppable, as she was over her two weeks at French Open in 2016, where she even dispatched off Serena with ease.
During these two weeks at Wimbledon, Muguruza has had 1994 Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez in her coaching corner. And it is Martinez’s presence that seems to have done wonders for her confidence and temperament.
“I think she’s helping me to deal with the stress of the tournament, because it’s a long tournament,” Muguruza said after beating Magdalena Rybarikova by a thumping 6-1, 6-1 scoreline in the semi-final.
“I’ve been here a while already. So she just knows how to prepare, how to train, what to do. Not that I’m doing something different, honestly. But to have her by my side gives me also this little confidence on having someone that has won before,” she said.
The final on Saturday will pitch two powerful, big-serving players against each other. The fans at Centre Court and around the world could be treated to fireworks as both the finalists are aggressive players who love to attack.
Venus has already beaten some of the biggest hitters and effective servers on the women’s tour in Naomi Osaka, Ana Konjuh, Jelena Ostapenko and Johanna Konta in her last four rounds. Muguruza has beaten two former Grand Slam champions – Angelique Kerber and Svetalana Kuznetsova – and she blew crafty Rybarikova off the court in her previous match.
Both players are riding high on confidence, but Venus has as added edge, knowing that she has beaten Muguruza three times out of the four that they have played in the past. The Spaniard won their most recent encounter this year, but it was on the clay courts of Rome.
Muguruza will have to serve well and return even better to win her second Grand Slam title. She hasn’t faced a hard-serving player like Venus in this tournament before, but her renewed desire and belief could take her over the finish line.
What could work in Venus’ favour are her improved second serve, and her forehand which has been firing on both barrels this fortnight. She has been playing with an added resilience and has her eyes set on a sixth Venus Rosewater Dish.
“I feel very focused. There's still a lot to be done. I have one more match that I'd like to, you know, be the winner of. I have to go out there and take it and play well. But I like to take courage in the fact that I've been playing well this tournament and this year, and all these moments have led to this,” she said after winning her semi-final.
If Venus wins, she would not only cement her place in history books, she would have also scripted one of the most awe-inspiring stories in sport. Mugurza, however, is determined to do whatever it takes to once again halt a Williams’ charge in the final. Over to Centre Court.
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Updated Date: Jul 15, 2017 12:24:20 IST