Serena Williams’ battle at the top of the women’s game has largely been with herself in recent years but now there is a new kid on the block. Garbine Muguruza, the Spanish 22-year-old, gatecrashed what was supposed to be the American’s party last month by winning the French Open and, strikingly, did so with a lack of fuss that suggested the victory might not be a one-off.
Defeat at Roland Garros leaves Williams still hanging one away from Steffi Graf’s Open-era record 22 major triumphs, a stupendous milestone she will now look to complete at Wimbledon, where she starts as favourite again.
The elusive 22nd seemed wrapped up at the US Open in September, only for little-known Italian Roberta Vinci to pull off one of the greatest shocks ever seen in the sport, and then again at the Australian Open in January, before Angelique Kerber delivered the performance of her life to thwart the 34-year-old again.
Muguruza’s victory in Paris was far more convincing and means that for Williams, who won her fourth straight grand slam at the All England Club last summer, the prospect of surpassing, or even of equalling, Graf’s historic benchmark suddenly appears far less inevitable.
Her dominance has been complete and long-standing.
In the last ten years, Williams has either won or reached the final of half her 36 grand slams played. Of her last 50 matches against top-ten opponents, she has won 43. And the French Open marked her 171st consecutive week at world No.1.
But while the numbers are instructive they also fail to convey a complete picture – the early-round scrapes, physical ailments and emotional strains that have often seemed to have Williams teetering on the brink of destruction.
Heather Watson’s heroic 6-2 4-6 7-5 defeat at Wimbledon last year, offering British fans thrilling drama on Centre Court, was one such narrow escape but it was by no means unique.
Williams had been taken to three sets by nine grand slam opponents already in 2015 and would go the distance with four more before the year was out.
Ahead of last year’s French Open final, there were doubts whether she would even make it on court as she lay bed-ridden with flu and at the US Open, gunning for the calendar grand slam, she admitted the expectation to win every tournament had become a draining experience.
All this means Williams arrives at SW19 certainly as the draw’s outstanding favourite but also simmering from disappointment and, for the first time, with a legitimate rival to her crown.
“I’m going to take a moment to be super candid and super honest,’’ she said, four days after the French Open in a video showing an empty court and basket of balls.
“After the Paris final, which is great for everyone on this planet with the exception of me – I don’t do what everyone else does – I was really pissed.
“I have to admit I thought I could have played better, I thought I could have competed better, I thought I could have really done everything five times better. And I didn’t.
“I was so pissed I actually abandoned my rackets in France, after a few smashes of the racket bag.
“I felt like if I was going to play that awful and that crappy that maybe I don’t need rackets, maybe I can just show up to a tournament, and maybe I can get to a final without playing great and without practice.
“But obviously that doesn’t work and sometimes you have to work extra hard, so I’m out here by myself because sometimes when you’re by yourself is when the great things really happen.’’
Perhaps Williams’ pride has been hurt by suggestions Muguruza is the one finally to end her hegemony at the top of the women’s game.
The Venezuelan-born world No.2 is not from the school of scrappers that occasionally capitalise on Williams’ off-days, but rather an athletic, swaggering, 6ft power merchant capable of going toe to toe with her best, and winning.
“She just goes for broke on every shot,’’ Williams admitted in Paris. “And it works for her.’’
This does seem a world away from last year’s Wimbledon final, Muguruza’s first at a major tournament, when she pushed Williams in the way a young pretender often does, exuberantly, only to crumble in the pressure moments.
Not now. If the pair meet again on Centre Court this summer, the butterflies may flutter more vigorously in the American’s stomach, knowing as she will that Muguruza must be beaten if the swell of support behind her surge to the top is to be halted.
“This win is like a new pulse given to women’s tennis,’’ Muguruza said following her triumph in the French Open.
“It’s incredible to see new faces and that the players know now that it’s possible to win, to defeat Serena. It’s like breathing new or fresh air.’’
Petra Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion and at her very best on grass, Madison Keys, the young American whose talent must soon fully blossom, and Victoria Azarenka, a fiendish opponent but one often hindered by injury, are also primed to capitalise on any hint of vulnerability at the All England Club.
Williams will be hungrier than ever to dash their hopes again.