Wimbledon: Churchill, Confucius and the Key to Beating Serena Williams

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By Bill Simons

LONDON—Winston Churchill said, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” And on a bright Wimbledon day, Serena Williams grabbed history by the throat to write some stunning history.

The 6-4, 6-4 victory by the Prime Minister of woman’s tennis gave her a second Serena Slam.

Simply put, Serena is a tennis force like no other.

“I think she will win forever,” quipped Andy Roddick.

Of course, there was much sympathy for her foe, Garbine Muguruza, the Barcelona blaster with the booming weapons, broad smile and little dimples. One savvy American said, “What’s good for GM [Garbine Muguruza] is good for tennis history,” while a Henman Hill fan expressed a conventional piece of wisdom. “I like Serena, but it’s about time someone else won, don’t you think?”

Muguruza, seeded No. 20, got top-seed reviews.”She’s absolutely a ray of sunshine,” said broadcaster Barry Mills. “I left her press conference feeling so good about life,” said another writer.

But few felt good about Garbine’s chances. She was just 21. Yes, she had scored a Grand Slam win over Serena. But she had never previously gotten beyond the second round at Wimbledon, and there is a wretched history of first-time Centre Court finalists being crushed during their debuts: think Genie Bouchard and Sabine Lisicki.

The Wimbledon program dipped into history to make a telling comparison: “If seeing someone being thrown to the lions in a coliseum was the Romans’ idea of sport, the 21st-century equivalent is taking some poor luckless sacrifice and chucking her into the Centre Court den of the roaring lioness that is Serena Williams.”

Exactly. Serena had won three Slams in a row. She’s 33, yet is getting better. She has collected 20 Slams. The rest of tennis’s active players have 21. Five times at the French Open she came back from the brink of disaster. Here she beat a sister (Venus), a sweetheart (British darling Heather Watson) a shrieker (the oh-so-athletic Victoria Azarenka), and a Sharapova (her fiercest rival, who she’s prevailed over with an other-worldly dominance).

But Serena is human. What other sports career has experienced and expressed such a range of astounding—sometimes sweet, sometimes sour—emotions? And today Serena came out drum tight. She was not only playing a kid with nothing to lose, she was playing history, and she felt that considerable weight. Her service toss was low, her double-fault count was high, her movement was suspect, her groundies wild. All the while, Muguruza was fearless. Swinging free, she pounded groundstrokes, served big, and returned serve with conviction. It was clear she hadn’t gotten the memo. She was supposed to fold, but she was bold.

The Spaniard, who last year hated grass and lost in the first round, now was loving it. She broke Serena to start the final and backed up the feat with laser forehands, lean-in backhands and hefty serves. For over 20 heady minutes she had Serena on her heels. Williams’s head dipped, her groundies flew long. “Flashdance,” the brain-worm fight song she has in her head, vanished. Williams’s Wimbledon, the Serena Slam and the calendar Grand Slam clearly were all in jeopardy.

But no one turns tides like Ms. Serena. “When she feels the taste of losing, it is like tasting death,” her coach Patrick Mouratoglou told IT. Without any of the angst-ridden, foot-stomping panic we’ve seen this summer, Serena stepped it up. There were only a handful of “C’mon”s. “Flashdance”‘s lyric began to cycle again: “What a feeling … I can have it all, now I’m dancing for my life / Take your passion and make it happen.”

Serena made it happen. She upgraded her game with one-shot-at-a-time patience. Her serve, defense and groundies all improved. She broke back to even the first set, 4-4.

Now Muguruza began to doubt. She confided later, “It’s hard to concentrate … You have Serena in front of you. You’re thinking she won [this tournament] five times … [This] is your first final. You know you don’t have too many chances … With Serena, if you lose two points you lose the match.” Serena began to blast away, a heavyweight taking control in the middle of the bout. She won eight of the nine next nine games to lead 6-4, 5-1.

But Muguruza considerable grit and game. After Serena, she has more wins over top 20 players than anyone this year. She countered Aga Radwanska‘s surge in the semis and saved match points against Angelique Kerber. Today, when Serena seemed certain to win, Garbine survived a championship point, weathered a barrage of serves, and won three games in a row over a suddenly vulnerable Serena.

The crowd roared, loud and frenetic. But Williams remained quiet and calm, and when a Muguruza forehand drifted wide, she scored a dramatic 6-4, 6-4 win in the most anticlimactic of ways.

No one knew if Serena had won. Time stopped. But soon it was clear. Britain’s smitten crowd gave Muguruza a earsplitting ovation. Overwhelmed, the delightful Spaniard confided that she “couldn’t stop crying. So many people are clapping … I make all these people feel this on a tennis court.” Still, she kept it real. When Serena told her she would win Wimbledon, she thought to herself, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Tennis’s bean counters were rejoicing with their stats.

Williams, now the oldest player to ever win a Slam, had over twice the ranking points of No. 2 Sharapova. It had been eleven years since she scored her first Serena Slam. She now held all four major titles. This was Serena’s sixth Wimbledon and 21st major. She was on the prowl.

Some wondered whether, somewhere in Las Vegas, a proud, bald husband, Andre Agassi, and his wife, Steffi Graf, were feeling footsteps; and whether in Perth, Australia, Margaret Court, now the pastor of the Life of Victory Church, was possibly praying that her all-time mark for Slams might endure.

Serena is now primed to match Graf’s record of 22 Open Era slams in New York, and she’s just three shy of Court’s all-time mark of 24.

None other than Confucius long ago told us,  “Study the past if you would define the future.” Well, in the recent past, fortress Serena has seemed totally impenetrable. Her coach Patrick Mouratoglou noted the obvious: “No one has found the key [to beating her]. The key is hidden really, really well. I mean she can lose, but the key to beat her, no one ever found it … Maybe one [Petra Kvitova beat her in Madrid]. But it hasn’t happened again. So it’s not a real key.”

So, we asked, “Who hid the key?”

“I don’t know,” Patrick replied, “but no one has found it.”