GARBINE’S ‘MUGU-RUTHLESS’

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Photo by GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images)

WIMBLEDON –

Bill Simons

She’s indrawn and exudes a grace. She’s beautiful, mature, dignified, dedicated to the sport she loves and is celebrated around the world. She knows far more than she reveals.

In other words, Venus Williams is just like her favorite tournament – Wimbledon. Are they connected at the hip?

If Williams is a tennis artist, then Wimbledon is her preferred canvas. When she comes to England, Williams becomes serene and quiet. She craves solitude. Often she’ll whisper. But, noted Tracy Austin, “When she walks inside the All England Lawn Tennis Club, she instinctively becomes more aggressive.”

En route to winning five Wimbledons, Venus scored victories over many a great. There were subdued triumphs when she beat her sister or ecstatic leaps of joy when she downed Lindsay Davenport. Of course, not all of her Wimbledons have been masterpieces.

She stood hapless on Court 2 when her sister was dazed and woozy during a doubles match. And remember the little black girl who first came to the All-England Lawn Tennis Club amidst over-the-top hype 20 years ago, only to falter terribly against the now-forgotten Magdalena Grzybowska. “I was nervous,” Venus recalled. “The match was a total disaster. Poor younger me.”

But today, we imagined Venus muttering “Poor older me.” The grand champion – so regal, so proud – was dismantled by a rising Spanish tennis princess, Garbine Muguruza.

The stunned Centre Court throng could not believe it. The 37-year-old legend was humbled and punished. This was the aging Willie Mays whiffing on a fastball down the middle, or Muhammad Ali, in his twilight, being pummeled by young Larry Holmes – or creaky Joe Namath throwing interceptions for the Rams.

But Venus had her chances – boy, did she! At the end of a scintillating first set – packed with deep shots, aggressive winners and corner-to-corner sprints, there was a cutting-edge intensity and razor-thin margins – Venus had her opening. After pounding Garbine’s forehand all set, Williams had two set points, 4-5, 15-40 Muguruza’s serve. One sensed the great American would collect the first set and gain command.

A blistering rally broke out, 19 strokes long. On the fifth stroke a Muguruza forehand skimmed the net and went over. If the stroke had been two inches lower Venus would have captured the critical first set.

Rarely in tennis does a single point, let alone a single shot, prove decisive. But Muguruza’s fateful forehand went in and the penultimate rally forged on until, inexplicably, Venus blinked and hit a rally forehand into the middle of the net.

Wham-Slam!

The match turned in a flash. Muguruza had survived Venus’ storm. The Spaniard’s game ascended. She was almost flawless – in the zone. She easily saved another set point.

Now we saw no evidence of a once-tumultuous youngster who was seen sniping at her coach Sam Sumyk during changeovers or crying on court. We saw her play with a walk-in-the-park ease, so unlike a month ago in Paris, where she revealed the torment of a confused kid, breaking down and having to leave a French Open press conference, and then returning to confide that it was a huge relief to no longer be the French Open defending champion.

No wonder earlier in the week Boris Becker reflected on Garbine, who has a mixed heritage, and said, “She has something to prove. She’s a proud Spaniard-slash-Venezuelan who doesn’t want to be a slashed potato.”

Far from that, Muguruza had a champion’s presence today – not like at the Eastbourne warm-up tournament where she lost 6-0, 6-1 in the first round. Rather she was simply “Mugu-ruthless.” Smelling blood in the water, she quickly held serve and won the next two games to claim the first set 7-5.

Okay, one thought, wouldn’t Venus, with all her belief, experience and firepower, just regroup and re-calibrate? Match on! Wrong.

Muguruza put her hefty pedal to the metal. When Williams sluggishly charged the net, the Spaniard passed her like a Mediterranean breeze. Tall, confident and moving with speed and grace, Garbine displayed her wonder backhand – a cross-court laser one moment, a down-the-line winner the next. Never mind the pressure of the moment, or all the kings and champions (the monarch from Spain and the American icon Billie Jean) who were looking on. As she took total command, Garbine denied her foe any rhythm.

Hapless and at a loss, Venus had no counter-punches. Her shots sprayed wide or long. We saw none of the fierce, “I will-not-be-pinned” sense of rage or fight that ignites Serena when she feels caged.

Instead, Venus was stoic – her expression blank, her will crushed. The stat sheet was unkind. Williams lost nine games in a row. In the shockingly brief 26-minute second set she won just 12 points. Yes, she has reached two Slam finals this year – amazing. But she hasn’t won a Slam in nine years. So was she feeling the effects of her age or of Sjogren’s syndrome? After her 7-5, 6-0 drubbing, Venus deflected the media’s probing efforts to find out. Will she be able to reach another Slam final? Not too long ago she told us, “This old cat has a few tricks left in the bag.” And if you are a tennis savant, you defer to Venus and Serena’s family mantra: “Never underestimate a Williams.”

Clearly, Muguruza doesn’t. She repeatedly told the media she was ready for every twist or turn. Her respect for the icon is clear. Now Garbine is the only player to have beaten both Serena and Venus to claim a Slam title. She is now, along with Conchita Martinez, the second Spanish woman to win Wimbledon. And Martinez (who was with her this fortnight in the absence of her regular coach Sumyck, whose wife was giving birth) clearly brought her a much-needed calm.

What isn’t clear is whether this is just the beginning of a long run for the young, talented six-foot Spaniard. In other words, we still just don’t know how “Mugu-ruthless” Garbine is going to be.

Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images

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