Australian Open 2020: Garbine Muguruza continues to impress with newfound mental fortitude in scratchy win over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova

  • Maybe the last two barren years did achieve one important thing: They gave Muguruza the ability to face adversity without losing her head.

  • Muguruza has shown more mental strength this week than she has in the last two years combined, which is not something that anyone would have expected at the start of the tournament.

  • "It definitely has been from low to high, not starting at my best, then each day recovering," she said while talking about her struggles since 2017.

It has often been said about Garbine Muguruza that she can look like the best player in the world and the worst player in the world in the same tournament. When she’s feeling good about her game, she can do practically everything in the book better than everyone else. And when she’s off — which can happen for no discernible reason — she can struggle to find the broad side of a barn with her groundstrokes.

In the early going of her quarter-final match against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Muguruza wasn’t quite at her absolute worst, but she was far from the player that had outclassed top 10 players Elina Svitolina and Kiki Bertens in the previous two rounds. The Spaniard failed to put enough spin on her forehand and keep it in the court, pulled the trigger on the down-the-line backhand too early, and even threatened to succumb to her old nemesis: The double fault.

 Australian Open 2020: Garbine Muguruza continues to impress with newfound mental fortitude in scratchy win over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova

Garbine Muguruza in action during her quarter-final clash against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. AP

When Muguruza got broken to fall behind 1-2 in the first set, the fears of her collapses from the last two years came rushing back. Was she going to descend into an error machine at the slightest hint of trouble, the way she had all too frequently in recent times?

We didn’t have to wait too long to get the answer. Taking big cuts on the return in the very next game, Muguruza put all the pressure back on Pavlyuchenkova and eventually got the break back. She seemed to have been going for too much in the first three games of the match, but she kept up with her super-aggressive approach and it somehow paid off.

In the space of those five frenetic minutes, Muguruza taught us the value of trusting your instincts, even when it seems totally impractical. She knew she had to match Pavlyuchenkova blow for blow if she hoped to overcome the big-hitting Russian, and she was willing to suffer a few blips in order to get to the ultimate goal.

Her task never got easier though, because her feel for the ball was still not where it needed to be. Maybe it was because of the pace at which Pavlyuchenkova was hitting, or the fact that she had never crossed the quarter-final stage at the Australian Open before, but Muguruza didn’t completely loosen up even after that early statement of intent.

The two-time Grand Slam champion was at the receiving end of another break at 3-4, with her forehand betraying her again. She did break back immediately at that stage too, but she never looked in control of the proceedings. And that was where Pavlyuchenkova decided to give her a helping hand.

Serving to stay in the set at 5-6, the Russian coughed up three double faults from the deuce side and got broken, gifting Muguruza the initiative on a silver platter.

“Sometimes you don’t feel great but you fight and stay there,” Muguruza said later about the tough early period of play. “First set was very hard, I think it lasted about an hour. It was a very important set and I’m happy I got it.”

She wasn’t out of the woods yet though. Serving to start the second set, Muguruza made two more forehand unforced errors to get broken, which meant she had to play catch-up yet again. But for the third time in the match, she broke right back – this time helped by two double faults from the Russian.

Clearly, there was something bothering Pavlyuchenkova while serving from one end of the court, and Muguruza was all too happy to take advantage. When the Russian got broken again at 2-3 in the second set, the writing seemed to be on the wall.

Smelling blood like a well-trained shark, Muguruza started unloading on both her serve and her groundstrokes, and refused to give Pavlyuchenkova even a whiff of a chance of making a comeback. She dropped just two more points on serve to seal the match 7-5, 6-3, and with it her first-ever trip to the Australian Open semi-finals.

The Spaniard struck 21 winners and conceded 21 unforced errors on the day. Those are not bad stats, but a world away from the super-clean displays she put up against Svitolina and Bertens. And considering the fact that she was a break down in each of the two sets, her ability to remain focused and keep plugging away was the standout feature of the match.

Maybe the last two barren years did achieve one important thing: They gave Muguruza the ability to face adversity without losing her head. She has shown more mental strength this week than she has in the last two years combined, which is not something that anyone would have expected at the start of the tournament.

"It definitely has been from low to high, not starting at my best, then each day recovering," she said while talking about her struggles since 2017. "I would say I think those years were less successful if you compare them to my previous years. That's how I see it. I don't see it at all as a coma. I just think you struggle as a player, and there are moments where things don't go your way. You just have to be patient and go through the rough moments, just hang in there and it will come back again."

‘Come back again’ will likely be the theme of her next match — a blockbuster semi-final against Simona Halep. There’s no one better than Halep at defending from the back of the court, which means Muguruza will keep seeing the ball coming back over and over again.

Whether the Spaniard will maintain the shape on her groundstrokes even when she is forced hit a truckload of extra shots – shots that she hasn’t had to hit at any stage of the tournament so far – is anybody’s guess. But what we can say with a fair amount of certainty is that Muguruza won’t lose her head while she’s engaged in a war of attrition with the battling Romanian.

Muguruza hasn’t traversed the full spectrum of best player to worst player in this tournament; she’s only looked like the former. And that’s more than enough to know that her match against Halep will not be a cringeworthy whirlpool of errors.

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Updated Date: Jan 29, 2020 14:31:27 IST