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Wimbledon final preview: Muguruza reckons with another Williams sister

Friday, July 14th, 2017 at 2:44 pm , filed under Tennis News by

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Since the turn of the millennium, the road to Wimbledon glory has typically gone through at least one Williams.

Venus and Serena have combined to win 12 of the past 17 titles at the All England Club, and with Venus advancing to the 2017 final, at least one of the sisters has featured in 14 of the past 18 championship matches. Only one of those finals has ended with a non-Williams hoisting the Venus Rosewater Dish.

Garbine Muguruza will try to make it two. After losing to Serena in her first final back in 2015, she’ll take another crack at the Wimbledon crown on Saturday, this time with Venus standing in her way.

Peaking at the right time

Muguruza’s young career has been decidedly spotty and non-linear in its progress. She’s made just four Tour finals and has won only two outside the majors – and this is her first final of any kind since winning last year’s French Open – but she’s also about to play in her third Slam final in as many years, with a chance to win her second Slam title. She’s a big-match player, and she showed at Roland Garros last year (when she beat Serena in straights) what she’s capable of once she gets on a roll and finds her timing.

It’s also safe to say she’s on a roll. She’s dropped just one set this fortnight, and that was to former world No. 1 Angelique Kerber (former only because Muguruza beat her). Otherwise, she hasn’t lost more than four games in any set. She’s been striking the ball cleanly from both wings, with her backhand popping off in particularly violent fashion. She’s had rock-solid game plans coming into each match, altering her approach and demonstrating her adaptability by handling opponents with vastly differing styles.

Notably, she’s been super aggressive coming to the net – a tactic she’s shown the willingness and capability to execute in the past, but not one that’s ever been a staple of her game. She’s usually comfortable at the baseline, where she can bash away with the best of them. But her volleying ability gives her an ace up the sleeve, and the power and depth she generates from the back of the court affords her plenty of opportunities to move forward. She’s come to the net 122 times through six matches, and won more than 71 percent of those points. She’s forced opponents to play on her terms.

Service with a smile

Venus has been playing with an unfettered joy this season; a lightness and bounce that have helped buoy her to two Slam finals in six months, after going nearly eight years without making one. That doesn’t mean she’s just happy to be here, even if some part of her feels she should be.

“I couldn’t ask for more,” Williams said after her semifinal win over Jo Konta. “But I’ll ask for a little more.”

Her biggest advantage in this matchup is her serve, and if it’s as on-point as it was against Konta, she can tilt the balance of control into her favor. Muguruza isn’t an especially good returner, and has yet to face anyone this tournament who serves nearly as well as Venus. And while the Spaniard is as good an attacker as anyone, she’s more a front-runner than defense-to-offense threat. If Venus puts herself ahead early in points, she’ll be able to stay on top of Muguruza.

Venus may be 37, but neither her power nor her foot speed has seen a significant drop-off as she’s aged, and in a new twist, her second serve has started to look like a legitimate weapon. She’s played to her strengths when the two have met in the past, going 3-1 in their head-to-head matchups (with her only loss coming on clay this past spring). For the most part, Williams has proven more adept at handling Muguruza’s firepower than Muguruza has at handling hers.

This will be their first meeting on grass.

What to expect

For what promises to be an enthralling battle, both players are coming in white-hot, riding dominant second-week performances that culminated in particularly dominant semifinal victories.

There’s a reason they’ve both enjoyed so much success at this tournament in the past; the grass court is kind to their hard, flat groundstrokes, and both thrive by stepping inside the baseline and taking time away from their opponents. They come armed with some of the game’s most destructive weapons off the ground, and their battle for court positioning will go a long way toward determining the outcome. And while neither rattles easily, and both have played with icy determination throughout the tournament, emotions figure to run high given what’s on the line.

Muguruza is trying to definitively wash out the bitter taste of the last 13 months, in which she battled injuries and expectations while suffering disappointing defeat after disappointing defeat. Her French Open title defense ended in tears last month, but she’s looked like a transformed player ever since.

Venus is gunning to become not only a six-time Wimbledon champ, but the oldest Slam winner of the Open era. As well as she’s playing, there’s no telling whether this chance will present itself again. Serena’s absence has opened the door a little wider for everyone, but possibly for her older sister most of all. Venus’ return to the top of the women’s game has been a long time coming, but Serena’s been there to turn her away nearly every time she’s been close to breaking through again – at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2015, and at the Australian Open earlier this year.

This is a golden opportunity for both players, but opportunity can be equal parts blessing and curse. (Just ask Simona Halep.) In a matchup so even in tennis terms, it isn’t about who wants it more; it’s about who can better harness their desire.

THE PICK: Muguruza in three sets.

HOW TO WATCH: ESPN (U.S.) or TSN (Canada), Saturday at 9:00 a.m. ET.

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