At six feet, she is tall and imposing as she saunters onto the terre battue court. You know her mind is racing. She must be trying to breathe, focus, think about her game plan, think about anything except playing HER. Instead she must think, “this is clay. I know how to play on clay. I can beat her. I know her game. I have watched her tapes hundreds of times. I know her game. I can beat her. I can beat her. I can beat her.”
With the I can beat her mantra on repeat she quickly takes the first set from her childhood idol but she knows not to get too happy. She knows Serena is the most dangerous when she is backed into a corner, so she breaths and prepares for war.
She returns Serena’s massive serve and digs into an eighteen shot rally to grab the second set’s first break. She’s focused now, reminding herself to stay calm, to move her feet, to keep the first serve percentage high, and to focus even when Serena rushes the net in the third game because she is down a set and two games.
Up 4-1 she is relentless, moving Serena and punishing her backhand with three shots to the same spot to secure the game. When she serves it out with a body serve, Serena nets it. In one dance like motion she turns around dropping her racket and putting her clenched hands on her head trying to contain her excitement and savior the moment before approaching the net to shake hands with her childhood hero who tells her, “If you continue like this you can win the tournament.” Unfortunately Garbine Muguruza fell to Maria Sharapova in the quarter-final of the 2014 French Open 1-6 7-5 6-1, but her win against the GOAT announced her arrival and claim as Serena Williams’ heir apparent.
The Spanish player, Muguruza, had been on the rise since her first appearance in WTA qualifying at Barcelona in 2008. She won five ITF singles titles before taking a wildcard to Miami in 2012 where she had impressive wins against Ayumi Morita, Vera Zvonareva and Flavia Pennetta to reach the fourth round before falling to the eventual champion, Agnieszka Radwanska. Her rise continued in 2013 at Indian Wells R16 losing to Kerber, Miami R16 losing to Li Na, Rome R16 losing to Sharapova and ‘S-Hertogenbosch SF losing to Flipkens. However, in 2013 tragedy struck in what could have been a career ending diagnosis, osteochondritis dissecans of the astragalus or OCD of the right ankle. Luckily, the surgery to repair her ankle was successful and only cost her six months off the tour. Her 2014 return was solid, but Venus got the better of her in the quarter-final of Auckland 6-3, 6-3. Muguruza went on to win Hobart, her second tournament after major surgery. She spent the remainder of 2014 improving her game and avoiding a major sophomore slump.
From season-ending #687 in 2009 to #21 in 2014, she has worked hard to gain consistency. Her game is as complete as any current player. She is an aggressive power or baseline player, with a solid serve, first (69%) and second (49%). Her footwork, movement, and court awareness is above average. Her shots are flat with a lot of pace, and she doesn’t have a lot of variety, but she can drop shot and lob effectively. Her forehand is lethal cross-court and down the line, but her two-handed backhand is a little weaker. The weakest part of her game is her return, first serve (38%) and second serve (58%). However, she doesn’t seem uncomfortable at net or on any surface; she has had success on grass (Wimbledon final ’15), clay (French Open QF ’15) and hard-court (Australian Open 4R ’15). Simply put, she can hit you off the court or retrieve your every shot.
Whether she takes the court against a veteran or a contemporary, she is focused and prepared strategically. Her confidence and focus rivals that of Serena and Sharapova. She doesn’t lumber onto the court or around it when frustration reigns, though she’ll destroy a racket in a fit or rage. She walks onto the court believing she can win and she plays with a mental strength that few of her peers possess; this may be the most important factor separating her from the small group of players vying for titles, slams and the elusive #1 ranking. While Keys, Pliskova, Vandeweghe and Stephens, also have big games, their games break-down quicker than Muguruza’s and they lack her mental fortitude and focus. Unlike Bouchard who had a string of high-profile wins last year, Muguruza’s physical and mental game is not likely to disintegrate or implode. She also possess a high tennis IQ; while she does not equal Radwanska or Bencic in this area, she can beat them with her game.
However, she has only beaten Serena once and she has not had any success against Venus, Sharapova, Petkovic or Safarova. These players use their experience to beat her. She is 0-3 against Venus, but she has played very competitive matches that were a lot closer than the scores indicate: 2013 Florianopois 6-4, 2-6, 7-5; 2014 Auckland 6-3, 6-3; 2015 Wuhan 6-3, 3-0 RET.
At 22, Muguruza has a long career ahead of her. If she can stay on the good side of Murphy’s law, continue her development and stay healthy, she can ascent the throne. However, she will have to: (1) improve her return game (2) add variety to her game, maybe a good slice (3) learn to hit with spin for angles, margin and shape (4) task her agent Olivier Van Lindonk and team to create a manageable schedule of on and off court obligations (5) partner with a coach who can help her develop her game.
After three years and a lot of success, she and coach Alejo Mancisidor parted after Cincinnati. On Facebook he said, “I stopped the project because there were many differences and my values did not allow me to believe and follow it. Sometimes great successes make great people but destroy relationships.” She has been working with Sam Sumyk since September on a trial basis scheduled through the Asian tournaments. Though he is left-handed, and his last two coaching departures weren’t amicable, Azarenka and Bouchard, he may be a good fit for the Spaniard.
No longer a rising star, Muguruza is now an integral part of the tour. She has cinched the #5 ranking and a spot in the WTA Finals in Singapore. Her growth since 2012 is evident. On the tour for less than three years, she is on track to secure her first Premier Mandatory title in Beijing. With or without this title she will have to loosen Serena’s stranglehold on the #1 ranking or wait for Serena to retire. No doubt Serena has her eye on Garbine Muguruza, do you?