article by Nick McCarvel via usatoday.com
PARIS – Is the world No. 1 – winner of 21 Grand Slam singles title and arguably the best women’s tennis player to ever play the game – the underdog in the French Open final?
In a way, yes.
Serena Williams has dug, scraped and fought her way back into the championship match here on Saturday – far from her best – and is set to take on No. 4 seed Garbiñe Muguruza, a big-hitting Spaniard who has picked up steam this fortnight in her quest for a maiden major trophy.
When the two clash on Court Philippe Chatrier Saturday for the Roland Garros title, it’s the 34-year-old Williams who will have to play catch up.
“If she plays like this, she’s not going to win,” Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou said Friday after another shaky Williams win. “But I don’t expect her to play that level tomorrow. The mental approach has to change. She has to show it.”
That’s the book on Williams: She rises to the occasion, time after time. She did it last year, winning five three-set matches en route to the French Open crown while suffering from the flu. She has done it this week, triumphing in three sets over Yulia Putintseva on Thursday in the quarterfinals and saving a pair of set points against Kiki Bertens on Friday. She’s a convincing 21-5 in major finals in her career.
Saturday will be her fourth match in as many days, however.
“In my mind, Muguruza is looking in a much better position for this Grand Slam final than at Wimbledon,” said Lindsay Davenport, noting the pair’s 2015 battle at the All England Club which Williams won in straight sets.
“I think Garbiñe is comfortable on clay and knows what to expect in a Grand Slam moment,” she said. “She takes the play to the opponent. Very few people can pressure Serena with pace and aggressive play and she does that. She’s going to be all over Serena. Serena can’t afford the slow starts she keeps throwing in.”
In four career meetings it’s been Serena who’s come out on top three times – including that Wimbledon final – though Muguruza won the only time they played on clay, 6-2, 6-2, here two years ago in the second round. It was Williams’ worst loss at a major – ever.
While the 6-foot 22-year-old tries for her first major, Serena is after No. 22, a sacred number in tennis. It’s the Grand Slam haul of Steffi Graf, an Open era record in men’s and women’s tennis. Williams has tried at the last two majors – the U.S. Open last year and the Australian Open in January – to get to 22 and has come up just short both times.
“If I get there it will be great,” Williams said Friday, shrugging.
Serena has said in the past that she’s let herself get too anxious about chasing history on the court, putting too much pressure on herself and letting the moment consume her. This one she’s trying to relax about.
“[There’s] nothing I can do about it,” she said. “The only thing can I do is just play to win the tournament and that’s it.”