Garbiñe Muguruza has a habit of talking about herself in the third person.

“It’s true that Garbiñe has changed,” she said this week at Roland Garros. “Garbiñe has changed quickly. And that’s fantastic for me.”

Garbiñe obviously knows Garbiñe well, because in the space of a few weeks, the two of them have come together to turn their 2016 season from one of puzzling disappointment to one of dazzling vindication.

Just three months ago, Muguruza was raking her coach, Sam Sumyk, over the coals and snapping at him to “tell me something I don’t know” in public. Those of us who had picked her as the season’s likely breakout star were left scratching our heads at her listless, leaden game and wondering what we had loved so much about it in 2015.

On Saturday, Garbiñe, the good Garbiñe, the smiling Garbiñe, the serenely confident and gracefully powerful Garbiñe, reminded us again when she beat Serena Williams, 7-5, 6-4, to win her first Grand Slam title, at Roland Garros. This time she had a different message for her coach.

“I’m just gonna start screaming,” Muguruza said, when she was asked what she would do when she saw Sumyk.

With him, not at him, we presume.

Muguruza said she began the final with Serena with a third-person message to herself.

“Come on Garbiñe,” she said as she walked onto the court, “you can do this. You’ve worked for this all your life, now’s your moment to make history.”

Advertising

Muguruza knew she had the skills to beat Serena, and the skills to win a major. It was a matter of pulling them both off at the same time that felt daunting. She had knocked Serena out in the second round at the French Open two years ago by the lopsided score of 6-2, 6-2, but when she faced her in the Wimbledon final in 2015, she had come up short in the important moments. Now, 11 months later, Muguruza was back in the same position.

She was doing everything right, and everything she knew she was capable of doing. The 6'0" Spaniard was standing toe to toe with Serena. She was coming up with big shots to fend off break points. She was handling Serena’s serve. And at the end of the first set, she had weathered the world No. 1’s most intense storm. After saving two break points at 6-5 with an ace and a service winner, Muguruza closed the first set by drilling a backhand past her scrambling opponent and punctuating it with a fist-pump. It was all a little...Serena-esque.

“She played to win,” Serena said of Muguruza afterward.

Serena's quote may not sound like much at first, but it gets at the difference between Muguruza’s attitude and the attitude of so many of Serena’s opponents, including that of Kiki Bertens in the semifinals the previous day. Where most players are happy just to perform well against Serena, that was never going to be enough for Muguruza.

For a moment in the second set, though, it looked as if Muguruza would go the way of Bertens and so many others who had faltered at the finish line against Serena. Double-faltered, I should say: Up a break at 1-0 in the second, Muguruza succumbed to the yips and double-faulted twice. This time, though, Serena couldn’t make her pay for it. This time Muguruza was the player with the upper hand from the baseline. She went back to work from there, broke serve with a powerful crosscourt forehand, and then did what may be the toughest thing in tennis: Held her serve, and her nerve, four straight times against Serena for the title. You can’t say Muguruza didn’t win her first major the hard way.

"Both of us were very nervous,” Muguruza said, “but I just had to go for the match.”

For Serena, this is the second straight time she has lost a Grand Slam final to a player who had never won one before. For someone who won 21 of her first 25 major finals, that’s a strange turn of events. But if you look across the tennis aisle to the men’s game, you can see a parallel with Serena’s fellow 34-year-old, and fellow all-time major champion, Roger Federer. He has also been in the habit lately of losing the Slam finals he once dominated. Maybe that’s how the greatest players decline: They come up a match—a single match—shorter than they did in their primes.

“At the end of the day I didn’t play the game I needed to play to win, and she did,” said Serena, who was nursing an adductor injury.

To me, Serena’s day was summed up with one shot that she missed in the second set.

Down 1-3, she had raised her intensity, and her voice, and looked determined to make a run. She held her serve easily, and at 2-3, went up 0-15 when Muguruza double-faulted. Could she get in the head of her 22-year-old opponent?

The answer was no. At 30-15, Serena set herself up for what looked like a winning forehand. She swung hard, she grunted loudly, and then she watched the ball sail just wide. It was a shot Serena has made countless times in similar clutch situations. This time the ball landed an inch outside the line instead of an inch inside it.

Advertising

A Spanish Star is Born

A Spanish Star is Born

If there’s a lesson in Muguruza’s victory, it’s an old one: Focus on the process, and the results with come. Three weeks ago in Rome, she refused to say that she was disappointed in how her season began.

“I don’t think it’s a slow start,” Muguruza said when asked how she had turned things around so quickly. “Obviously, I didn’t have the results I had last year, but I’m doing exactly the same: practicing hard and getting ready and fit.”

Garbiñe has changed, in other words, but Garbiñe also knew who she was all along.

One question, though: Was Garbiñe practicing her running topspin lobs with Sumyk all that time? That’s how she ended the match, by sending one up that appeared to be going long, but which landed smack on the baseline instead. All Serena could do was smile and applaud. She knows a winner when she sees one.