FRENCH OPEN: THE NEW BEGINNING – THE ELEGANT POWER OF GARBINE MUGURUZA

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Photo by C. Dubreil-FFT/Pool/Getty Images

PARIS

Bill Simons

The elegant lob from the elegant lady hung in the French heavens for what seemed to be an eternity until it looped down and fell on the line, and a 22-year-old in yellow fell to the red earth. The old king of tennis – that would be Billie Jean King – would soon give the new queen of the game, Garbine Muguruza, the French trophy, while the game’s long-reigning diva looked on, offering a smile one moment, being close to tears the next.

Twenty-two-year-old Muguruza took down the lady who is still going for her 22nd Grand Slam – a mark which would have equaled Steffi Graf for the Open Era record.

But this afternoon proved to be about new futures, not grand pasts. And the lady with the endless legs, wearing the Stella McCartney dress, proved stellar as she prevailed 6-4, 7-5.

Serving with power and placement, Garbine jammed Serena time and again. Her groundies were deep, hard to read and pattern-free. Time and again she fooled the American – or had her reeling. In the fourth game of the opening set, the Spaniard overcame her modest start as she saved three break points to hold, and then broke Serena to go up 3-2.

But Serena was playing well. This was not the leaden, patchy Williams whose level had often disappointed her fans earlier in the tournament. Serena broke back to even the first set.

But Garbine is no longer a rookie. She is no longer the Wimbledon finalist we loved for her darling dimples. This was not the confused campaigner enduring an inexplicable malaise that prevented her from winning in this curious season, which saw her suffer an embarrassing on-air tiff with her craggy-faced, no-nonsense coach Sam Sumyk. This was a confident star-in-the-making who has power, poise, speed, finesse and resilience. She’s young. She’s tough.

Up 6-5 in the first set, she faltered on two set points, but blasted yet another laser backhand past the lunging Williams. In her blue shoes, blue skirt and blue top, Serena felt the blues. In contrast, ecstatic Spaniards waved their banners. Their gal won the first set and immediately broke to start the second. Serena was down a set and a break.

But slow starts and faltering stretches are part of Serena’s DNA. Midway through her career she flat-lined. Critics said she preferred red carpets to gold trophies. It seemed to take forever for her to get her 18th major, to equal Chris and Martina’s American Slam record. And this was now her third try at winning her 22nd major. But don’t forget – Serena adores drama, especially in Paris. A first-round loss to a French woman in 2012 changed her career, and last year, en route to the title, she had go to three sets five times.

Today, early in the second set, the greatest player of our era fought back to break and even the score. Certainly Serena’s counterattack would gain traction.

Then Muguruza broke the best WTA server ever for the third straight time to go up 2-1. Serena’s coach Patrick Mourataglou said, “Serena just couldn’t keep her level of aggression long enough. It went away too fast. It came back. It went away. Too many ups and downs. That’s life. If she didn’t feel the pressure of the 22nd, she wouldn’t be human.”

Chris Evert was more blunt. “She’s met her match with power,” said the commentator. Despite some lapses and inexplicable double faults, the Spaniard stretched her lead to 5-3 and had a championship point. In the pricey seats, Rod Laver, Guillermo Vilas, Todd Martin, Hillary Swank, Guga Kuerten and Conchita Martinez leaned forward. Could Garbine seal the deal?

No – she netted a backhand. But soon she gained a second championship point. Serena hit a service winner. The Spaniard gained another championship point – and again faltered. “I squeeze my ass big time,” confided her coach Sam Sumyk. “My gluts were in trouble.”

Muguruza, hitting with relentless depth and controlling the middle of the court, gained a fourth Championship point. But then she hit a backhand wide.

Serena, on the brink, survived a mighty scare as she saved those four match points. This was just what her inspired-by-Houdini playbook called for. Spanish spirits sagged. Garbine barely blinked. She recalled, “I was like, come on. Let’s go for it. Forget about the nerves, even though it is hard…For the whole week my whole game plan was to be less emotional. To believe more that I’m here because I deserve my place here – I earned it.”

As she did in her semifinal against Sam Stosur, she quickly stepped up and played a perfect, gutsy final game. All her first serves went in. She didn’t give her foe a chance. It was like she was telling the American, “You are a mighty champion, you’re still No. 1, but this is my day, my tournament, my time.” Her coach put it simply, “It was a fantastic last game, it couldn’t have been better.”

Garbine explained that when her last lob went in, “It was really weird…I didn’t know if it was in or out. I looked at the chair umpire and chair umpire doesn’t want to say anything. Line judge doesn’t want to say anything. I was like, did I win Roland Garros? What happened? When he said, Game, set and match, I was like, ‘No way!’ I won! It was amazing.”

Does Muguruza’s triumph mean there will be a changing of the guard? Who knows?

She is young – not like US Open champion Flavia Pennetta, who won, then retired. At six feet, she has size – unlike Aussie champion Angelique Kerber and other leading players like Simona Halep and Aga Radwanska. She’s healthy, and she’s not suspended, like Azarenka and Sharapova. She is now No. 2 and seems to have No. 1 written all over her.

But her coach Sumyk noted that they all say, “This one should be the next dah, dah dah – blah, blah, blah. But until its done. it’s complicated, you have all these expectations. But at least her name is no longer on a list of potential Grand Slam winners. It’s done – this is awesome. It is a beginning.”

Well, if this is just the beginning, this kid with the darling dimples and punishing groundies should have one heck of a future.

Stay tuned.

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 04: Garbine Muguruza of Spain hits a forehand during the Ladies Singles final match against Serena Williams of the United States on day fourteen of the 2016 French Open at Roland Garros on June 4, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images)
Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images