Wimbledon 2017 - Muguruza reaches the age of maturity
At the age of 23, Garbiñe Muguruza won her second Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, after Roland-Garros in 2016. Having gained in experience after her first major, she now seems ready to live up to expectations and establish herself as the No.1 on the women’s circuit.
Winning a first Grand Slam title is not always the panacea that one might think. It took almost three years for Serena Williams to go from her maiden success (US Open 1999) which established her on the world stage, and the second (Roland-Garros 2002), which was the one that definitively launched her exceptional career. And after beating Serena’s elder sister Venus in the 2017 Wimbledon final, Garbiñe Muguruza will no doubt agree with this precept. At Roland-Garros just a month ago, the Spaniard left the press room in tears after falling in the fourth round of her title defence to Kristina Mladenovic. At the time, it was hard to tell whether those tears were of sadness or the result of all of the tension that had been building up week after week, month after month.
When she opened her Grand Slam account in Paris in 2016, she was amazing, dropping just one set – the first of the tournament, in fact, before going on to brush aside opponents of the calibre of Svetlana Kuznetsova, Samantha Stosur and Serena in the final. After that, it proved a big ask to live up to expectations – including her own, no doubt. "Garbi" failed to reach a final in the 12 months that followed, meaning that when the French Open rolled around again, she was not in a good place. "It wasn’t easy," she admitted. "It’s so good when you win, but it’s tough to follow up when you know that you’re not in the best state to defend your title." Even if "dealing with this type of situation is very much a first-world problem…" she grinned!
"When I looked up at the list of winners engraved on the wall, I realised just how big a difference there was between the runner-up and the winner"
Nevertheless, as was the case for many men’s and women’s players before her, the first defence of a Grand Slam title – with all of the memories combining with the realities of the new tournament, including the mountain of ranking points to defend – was a painful experience for the Spaniard. Even the word "defence" implies being on the back foot, which is not how Muguruza likes to play her tennis. The loss of her Paris crown however seemed to bring about the almost immediate re-emergence of the player last seen in spring 2016 – attacking, full of confidence, tactically on the ball and with a clear head when it comes to making decisions.
Garbiñe also has that extra je ne sais quoi that belongs to real champions – the ability to raise her game when the stakes are high. She has only won four titles thus far, but two of them are majors, and she has reached a Grand Slam final in each of the past three years. She has played Serena Williams – the benchmark on the WTA circuit and another big-game player – five times, always at a Grand Slam, and beaten her twice. And of course, the most eloquent stat of all is that she has played two finals on the circuit in the past 20 months. Both of them in Grand Slams, and both of them ended up in the win column. "I’m always particularly motivated by the Grand Slams, that’s true. I don’t know why… I lost my first Grand Slam final (Wimbledon 2015)… but when I looked up at the list of winners engraved on the wall, I realised just how big a difference there was between the runner-up – which is still a great achievement - and the winner, who is the one up there for all to see. There’s no comparison, which is why there is extra special motivation not to lose that particular match once you’re so close to the finish line."
This may well be the secret of how she manages to handle the inherent stress of the big tournaments. "I just do what I can," she says with another smile, before speaking in a way that Roger Federer would have been proud of 24 hours later. "I feel the pressure as well, but I look at it as a good thing. It’s part and parcel of big wins, on the big courts. And that is what I’ve always wanted, what I train for every day, and what I know that I am capable of. I never think that my opponent is better than I am when I get out on court, whoever they are, and that might be why I play well at big tournaments, I suppose. Because it’s what I work for, and if I’ve made it through to the final it’s because I prepared well for it."
For her to take her play to the next level, she needs to become more consistent year in, year out, rather than just peaking at the Grand Slams. The WTA circuit is currently dominated by players who do not necessarily win the majors, and indeed this week’s ranking has only one Grand Slam winner in the top four – Angelique Kerber, and she is down in third. Muguruza meanwhile sits in fifth spot, but could be the one to change the face of the women’s game. "I still struggle to strike the right balance over time to ensure that I feel at my best physically, mentally and in tennis terms," she says. "It’s a fine line. Once I get tired, and a few aches and pains, my confidence just evaporates. And when I play with no confidence… it’s not easy (laughs)! With the experience of the first Grand Slam, I hope that this second one will be a real stepping stone, meaning that I can keep things going for more than just one tournament." Her battle with Karolina Pliskova, who is trying to do the opposite of Muguruza and win her first major after being crowned world No.1, could well be one of the main talking points of the rest of the season…