Racquet Reaction

Australian Open: S. Williams d. Muguruza

Thursday, January 17, 2013 /by
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In her first-round match, Serena Williams rolled an ankle. For an encore today, she whacked herself in the mouth with her racquet (“Now maybe I’ll have super sexy lips,” she quipped afterward). But if you think Serena has been tough on herself, you should see what she’s doing to her opponents.

Her second-round victim was the highly promising, barely 19-year-old, No. 112 Garbine Muguruza. She’s from Spain, born in Caracas to a Venezuelan mother. She’s a willowy six-footer, makes easy power, and showed terrific composure and excellent mettle that won't be evident to anyone who’s going to judge the match simply by the score—a 6-2, 6-0 win for Serena.

It’s an especially poignant deception when compared to the earlier match I wrote about, in which Victoria Azarenka simply crushed Eleni Daniilidou.

Muguruza’s main problem in this match wasn’t the much acclaimed Serena serve—could that really have been a 128 M.P.H. ace that she delivered on the first match point to come her way?—as her return. Okay, it isn’t like people are running around complaining about Serena’s return woes. But when you have probably the best serve in the history of women’s tennis and your return somehow manages to overshadow it, you’re really cooking with oil.

What’s noteworthy is the variety of Serena’s return game. There’s the forehand, either the blast right back at the server’s shoe tops, or the rolling, sharp, cross-court forehand that we all know and love. But for my money, the signature Serena return is that open-stance backhand that she hits without even bothering to turn her feet from a 90-degree angle to the baseline (don’t try this at home, folks, unless you want to throw out your lower back).

Serena turns her powerful shoulders to create torque and a compact, Andre Agassi-esque backswing, then she lets fly with significant racquet-head speed. The garden variety down-the-line shot is deadly; from the deuce court, she steps back from a ball curling from the service T to toward her body or left hip and just rips a sharply-angled, inside-out, open-stance backhand winner.

I mean, only Roger Federer is supposed to invent new stuff like this, right?

You have to feel for Muguruza. Her admirable fighting qualities were probably most responsible for how badly the score turned out. In the first set, she gave up an early break, but had a nice chance to earn it back with a sleepy-looking Serena leading, with serve, 3-2. Muguruza had a break point in that sixth game, but misplayed a second serve by moving sideways, instead of forward, and crowded herself into a return error.

A moment later, Serena tagged the first of her 10 aces (to Muguruza’s three) and forced a forehand error to hold. Serena added an insurance break and then won the set with a love game punctuated by an ace.

Things looked like they might get tricky over the next quarter of an hour, as Muguruza valiantly fought off Serena’s depredations in the first game of the second set. The game lasted a full 16 minutes (10 deuces by my count), and Serena had just four break points. But Muguruza was unable to convert any of her numerous hold points—mainly because of Serena’s returning prowess.

The critical fourth break point paid off for Serena when she hammered a backhand return that proved too hot to handle at the baseline. Muguruza drove her own backhand reply deep, and that was pretty much it for the match. The air visibly went out of the young pro’s game, and Serena began to reel off the games like a woman searching for three cherries in a slot machine.

Serena clubbed eight fewer errors than Muguruza (20 to 28) but had 13 more winners (28 to 15), most of which were service returns. It’s pretty hard to beat someone who has the best serve—and the best return—in the game.

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