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Williams focused on learning from history, not her place in it

By Michael Beattie   on   Friday 03 June 2016
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Serena Williams will defend her Roland-Garros title against Garbine Muguruza, who handed her the heaviest Grand Slam defeat of her career here in 2014.

"It is what it is," Serena Williams says, time and time again. It's a fine way to disarm a probing question - as it has in press conferences the world over - but perhaps it tells us something more, about the mindset that has carried her through the many trials, tests and opponents she has faced en route to her 21 Grand Slam titles.

The quest for 22 continues on Saturday, when the world No.1 takes on No.4 seed Garbine Muguruza in her fourth French Open final. She has never lost a title match here and never lost two Grand Slam finals in succession, but she has never defended the Roland-Garros title. Something has to give.

Depending who you ask, Williams-Muguruza is a repeat of last year's Wimbledon final, where the American clinched her 21st major triumph in style as the Spaniard made a creditable Grand Slam final debut. Or it's their second showdown in Paris, the scene of then-20-year-old Muguruza's sudden rush to prominence in 2014 when she stunned the world No.1 6-2, 6-2 in the second round - Williams' heaviest Grand Slam defeat.

Or, for the historians out there, it's Serena's third attempt to draw level with Steffi Graf's Open-era record of 22 Grand Slam titles after near-misses at the US Open, where her calendar slam bid ended in the semi-finals, and the Australian Open, where she was stunned in the final by Angelique Kerber.

"I hate to lose, but when I do, you know, I hope it was worth it. That match was definitely one of those that was kind of needed and worth it."

For Williams, it is what it is - another Grand Slam final, another showpiece occasion, another chance to lift the trophy and stand unrivalled.

"I don't think my mindset is any different," she said following her 7-6(7), 6-4 semi-final win over Kiki Bertens. "Obviously I want to do well and I would like to win tomorrow.

"But, you know, I think Muguruza has been playing really well. She's been playing a really aggressive game and going for her shots. Regardless, I think it will be a good match. I mean, last time we played here in France she was able to win the match."

What it won't be, Williams insists, is a repeat of their show-stopping encounter two years ago. Muguruza hoped her victory on Suzanne-Lenglen Court would be axis-tilting, declaring "now is the time" for the next generation of female tennis stars to prove they were ready to succeed Williams as the leading lights of the women's game.

Instead, Serena decided it was time to redouble her efforts. Since then, she has reached six of the next eight Grand Slam finals, winning four.

"I learned so much from that match," admitted Williams when reflecting on that 2014 match. "I hate to lose, but when I do, you know, I hope it was worth it. That match was definitely one of those that was kind of needed and worth it.

"I don't really want to elaborate, but it was a really unbelievable lesson for me. It propelled me to many, many, many wins after that."

The wins don't come easy, not matter how Williams has made it look at times in her storied career. Through four rounds the 34-year-old had not dropped a set before running into Yulia Putintseva, whose counterpunching had Williams scrapping for a three-set win that aggravated an adductor injury - not that she believed the strain warranted mention until pressed for confirmation. Tennis is both physically and mentally taxing, nowhere more so than at the majors, so such injuries are all but inevitable.

"Yeah I have had some issues," she eventually relented. "But, you know, it is what it is.

"I think it's survival of who can do the best. You have to be still mentally alive, and obviously you need to be physically alive and ready for everything."

Billie Jean King will be on hand to present the Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen to Saturday's champion - an American in Paris to see the American in Paris. Drawing level with Graf on the same court the German claimed her final major title would no doubt be poetic, too, but Williams is trying to treat it like any other final. Win, and the numbers will take care of themselves.

"If I get there it will be great," Williams said. "I guess you can say it took me a while to get to 18 considering, you know, I'm the only one on tour that had 18.

"I guess it's how you look at it. The same with 21 and trying to get to another one. Nothing I can do about it - the only thing can I do is just play to win the tournament and that's it."

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