As a Spanish woman, Garbine Muguruza, prepares for a Wimbledon singles final on Saturday, the pages of tennis history turn.
Back in 1974, 39-year-old Ken Rosewall contested the Wimbledon men’s final against 21-year-old Jimmy Connors. That’s a college freshman’s lifespan between the two competitors. In the annals of Wimbledon women’s finals with large age disparities between two players, it’s hard to find 18-year gaps, but you’ll find multiple gaps of 12 years or more, and they both involve Spanish women on the younger side of the divide.
In 1994, Martina Navratilova — at age 37 — took Centre Court for what would be her last Wimbledon final. Standing on the other side of the net was a 22-year-old Conchita Martinez, a player who always figured to be stronger on clay than on grass. Yet — helped by the first-round loss of Steffi Graf that year — Martinez made her way to the final, and though Navratilova is the greatest grass-court player of all time (regardless of gender), she carried old legs into the white-lined rectangle. As was the case with Andre Agassi two years earlier in 1992, Martinez won a first major at the place where she — and pundits — least expected it to happen: The All-England Club.
Fast forward to the here and now.
Serena Williams — fresh off an expected and routine win over Maria Sharapova in Thursday’s women’s semifinals — is 33 years old, and closer to her 34th birthday than her 33rd. Yet, whereas Navratilova was nearing the end of her singles career as a relevant force on tour, Serena is far from finished. More than that, Serena is destroying the WTA Tour, having won her last 27 major-tournament matches and coming within one victory — on Saturday — from owning all four majors at once. Serena is one win away from attaining the first three legs of the calendar Grand Slam. She has separated herself from the rest of the tour (with the possible exception of Victoria Azarenka) by a very large margin.
Yet, what remains about Williams is that she is 33, and that her opponent is 21. Garbine Muguruza is stepping into Conchita Martinez’s shoes on Saturday — not only in relation to that 1994 Wimbledon final, but also in that she’s the first Spanish woman to make a major final since Martinez did the deed at Roland Garros in 2000. Muguruza defeated Serena at the 2014 French Open, so like Martinez, it’s clear that this Spaniard (of Venezuelan heritage) owns considerable claycourt chops. It is a bit of a surprise that Muguruza has made her first major final at Wimbledon. Can she win her first major at SW19 as well? It would complete a circle and add to the story of Spanish tennis.
An old saying tells us, “Old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill every time.” The great thing about Saturday’s old-versus-young final is that treachery has been removed from the equation. This is all about skill, and the older player has certainly accessed a fountain of tennis youth.
Saturday’s match could become quite fascinating, given that Muguruza has the power and the sledgehammer serve that can trade blows with Serena. The central tension point of the match will be the battle within. Serena, who has a future as a tennis commentator when her playing days are done (if she wants it; I highly doubt she will…), put the matter succinctly in a statement posted on the grounds of The All-England Club:
— Tennis Matador ™ (@tennismatador) July 9, 2015
The first question concerns Muguruza’s ability to handle the moment and be as relaxed as she was in the first set of Thursday’s cluttered but compelling and very entertaining semifinal against Agnieszka Radwanska. Muguruza hit through nerves and instructively played excellent points immediately following mistakes. Though she lost the plot in the second set — as she often does — Muguruza regathered herself in the third set, showing a level of composure not many 21-year-olds manage to display in the cauldron of late-stage Wimbledon pressure.
If Muguruza plays the contained but forceful tennis she unfurled against Radwanska — who hopes that her renewal at Wimbledon after a horrible first half of 2015 is something that will stick — this final should be highly interesting and extremely close.
Should Muguruza bring her A-game, then the spotlight will fall on Serena, who has been pointedly forbidding talk of a calendar Grand Slam. Serena has wisely spent Wimbledon intent on reducing her challenge to the next match and the next opponent. Dictating the ways in which she talks about her challenges has made it easier for her to take the court and deliver the goods.
Twelve months ago at Wimbledon, Serena lost her third major of the year in as many tries, falling to Alize Cornet in a shocking first-week result. Now, in July of 2015, Serena has completely flipped the script, going for her third win of the year in as many attempts at the majors. She didn’t play anywhere close to her best against Sharapova in the semis, but then again, she didn’t have to. Most important of all, she knew she didn’t have to. Serena’s game was at her best against Venus Williams (fourth round) and Azarenka (quarterfinals). If she lifts her game back to that height from Thursday’s ordinary semifinal, even Muguruza’s best won’t be enough.
First, though, Muguruza needs to be at her best, and force a great champion to reach into the well one more time.
It’s not Old Age and Treachery versus Youth and Skill on Saturday for a Wimbledon title. It’s just a lot of skill, with the challenge being centered in the mind. Will Garbine Muguruza get out of her own way and smack the little yellow ball around Centre Court, or will the enormity of the occasion rob the young Spaniard of the tunnel vision Conchita Martinez managed to bring to the cathedral of tennis 21 years ago against Martina Navratilova?
We can’t wait to find out.