WIMBLEDON, England — In the front row of the friends box sat Conchita Martinez, one of the world’s foremost experts on the art of using uncommon will to puncture uncommon sentimentality in an uncommon setting. Twenty-three years ago on Centre Court, a 22-year-old Martinez left 37-year-old Martina Navratilova a sighing runner-up in a blaze of third-set passing shots almost shocking in their totality.
On Saturday, Martinez paid close-up witness to something almost preposterous in coincidence. A 23-year-old fellow Spaniard she has coached in the Federation Cup and helped out individually for the past three weeks, Garbine Muguruza, reiterated her deep seriousness about her tiptop caliber. By wielding her powerful will in a match full of power with 37-year-old Venus Williams, especially during a ferocious late stage of the first set, Muguruza won her second Grand Slam title, 7-5, 6-0, and left Williams a sighing runner-up.
Then the first-time Wimbledon champion — who had lost the 2015 Wimbledon final — said, “I didn’t want to lose this time, because I know the difference.”
That grew loudly obvious at 5-4 in the first set with the match on serve and Williams having held serve for 52 or her previous 54 service games, stretching back into the second set of her second round. Muguruza served, sprinkled in some forehand errors and tumbled into severe inconvenience at 15-40, leaving two set points for the five-time champion. The crowd murmured that patented Wimbledon murmur. What followed seemed downright ludicrous: Williams lost the last nine games and her last four service games, and that process afforded a full-on glimpse at Muguruza’s towering will.
In her head, Muguruza assured herself that her forehand errors were about to depart the premises in favor of forehand stingers inside the baseline. In her head, she also had a fantastic turn of thinking, ideal for the tension. “I was expecting the best Venus,” she said, “because I saw her, and she was playing very good. I knew she was going to, you know, make me suffer and fight for it. When I had those set points against me, I’m like, ‘Hey, it’s normal. I’m playing Venus here.’ So I just keep fighting.”
The next point proved that smashingly. It was a 20-shot marvel full of grunts and bangs and thwacks that rang under the roof beneath a London drizzle. As it wound on, it seemed clear that Muguruza, the 2016 French Open champion over Serena Williams, would have hit groundstrokes until December to get that point. Williams finally shipped a forehand from the baseline into the net, and Muguruza placed a 98-mph serve diabolically enough that Williams returned it long.
It was deuce, but it was almost over, even if nobody knew. A 15-shot rumble on Muguruza’s second break point in the next game ended with Williams’ forehand long for 6-5, and a world-class 12-shot tussle in the 6-5 game included a swell Williams lob in heaving defense but ended when Williams netted a backhand. Muguruza knelt over somewhat and fist-pumped behind the baseline.
Only then did 23-year-old begin to look very much 23, and the 37-year-old very much 37, as if that little stretch of compounding disappointment left her compromised. Muguruza won 26 of the 38 points in a second set that seemed like only filler, and it was time to count the coincidences.
“It was a whole different match” from 1994, “and it wasn’t talking about me,” said Martinez, filling in with Muguruza while her coach, Sam Sumyk, remained home for the birth of a child. “It was more about what she had to do to beat Venus, and not focus on her age. But inside of me, in my mind, you know, there were too many coincidences. Thirty-seven. She beat her on clay this year in Rome. I beat Martina on clay that year in Rome, that year that I won, so I was like, ‘Okay, we’re going to do this.’ ”
The finalists, in turn, sounded as winners and runners-up tend to sound: one with effusive, multi-paragraph answers, the other with a lot of brevity, her disappointment clear at the opportunity lost.
Muguruza: “At the beginning, you know, I didn’t like grass. For sure I suffered, you know, to play and to handle it. It took me a while to calm down, to say, ‘Hey, it’s grass. You have to adapt to the surface.’ Once I did this Wimbledon final, everything changed for me because I felt like, ‘Stop complaining. Your game suits this surface.’ Since that moment I’m like, ‘I like grass, and I’m going to look at it in a positive way.’ ”
Williams: “Yeah, I think she played amazing. She played amazing.”
Muguruza, a big-game player who has struggled to master the smaller matters: “I think once I go to the big court, I feel good. I feel like that’s where I want to be. That’s what I practice for. That’s where I play good, you know. This is what I would like to. I’m happy to go to the Centre Court and to play the best player. That’s what motivates me.”
Williams, on whether her age or her autoimmune condition, Sjogren’s syndrome, had sapped her: “I mean, she played top tennis, so I have to give her credit for just playing a better match.”
Muguruza, on playing without her main coach: “You have to think that my level tennis-tically doesn’t change, no matter who is in my box or not. I’m the same player.”
Williams, on whether she will return next year: “Presumably, yes.”
As with the nine-time champion Navratilova then, the sentiment tilted toward Williams now, yet her performances in recent Grand Slams suggest a consistent reprise that defies all sentiment. Though Saturday’s match marked her first Wimbledon final since 2009, she is the only player on the WTA Tour to reach two Grand Slam finals this year, the only player on the WTA Tour to reach the round of 16 in all the last six Grand Slams. So it fit that at a Wimbledon so much about Williams, a fresh champion concluded her English remarks raving about Williams.
“I’m just very surprised that she’s hungry to keep winning,” Muguruza said. “She has won almost everything. She’s not anymore young to be looking forward to all these matches. She just shows this toughness. I don’t know. I don’t know if I will be like this with her age.”
And then: “Probably I won’t, because she’s the only one.”