Last November, Garbine Muguruza did something that not many tennis players have ever done: she scaled Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. It was an impressive achievement by any standard, and when she said she “felt ALIVE!” upon reaching the top, it was hard to doubt her.
Was there a certain symbolism in the act though?
Muguruza has always been a terrific ball-striker, but over the last couple of years she’s also come to be known as an incorrigible headcase. In 2018 and 2019 she suffered so many alarming mid-match collapses that we wondered how she would ever overcome the ‘mountain’ of self-doubt and crippling anxiety that had seemingly taken hold of her.
The Spaniard’s Kilimanjaro expedition certainly seems to have helped her take the first step towards redemption. She started 2020 on a good note, reaching the Shenzhen semi-final and Hobart quarter-final, beating some quality players along the way. And after suffering a bagel in her Australian Open first-round match against Shelby Rogers, she has rebounded in spectacular fashion to storm into the second week.
Muguruza’s commanding 6-1, 6-2 win over fifth seed Elina Svitolina on Saturday could be viewed as a product of the work she has put in to slay her inner demons. Sure, it wasn’t the most physically demanding match, lasting all of 67 minutes and 15 games. But anyone who’s ever seen Muguruza play a cussed counter-puncher like Svitolina — and the two had in fact played 10 times previously, with Svitolina leading 6-4 — would know that a scoreline like that must have taken some special mental effort from the Spaniard.
Muguruza struck 31 winners on the day, but as astonishing as that number seems, it’s not unusual for her. What was unusual was the fact that she committed just nine unforced errors all match, despite Svitolina getting a ton of balls back in play.
As the first few long rallies unfolded at the start of the match, fears of a Muguruza unraveling grew in our minds. These were exactly the kind of situations where things had started falling apart for her recently; her inability to tame her big groundstrokes and keep them in the court had proved to be her undoing far too many times.
But on this day, Muguruza displayed a brand of zen-like patience that we didn’t know she had in her. Instead of trying to end the points with flat strikes, she put more spin and air on the ball than she ever has. Her forehand in particular was a picture of control; she never tried to do too much with it, but still generated enough depth and pace to keep Svitolina on the backfoot.
The Ukrainian did her best to elongate the rallies, but to her horror that soon started working against her. With every lengthy exchange Muguruza grew in confidence, and by the middle of the first set she was opening up the court at will and finishing with winners that didn’t even have to be close to the lines.
Her serve was working like a charm too. Double faults have often plagued the Spaniard at crunch moments, but on Saturday she made just one all match. Her first serve was also as big a weapon as it has ever been; she dropped just four points on it, for a remarkable 84 percent success rate.
The first set went by in a barely believable 23 minutes; Svitolina is among the best in the world at stretching out points and games, and even she couldn’t make a dent in the Spaniard’s water-tight game. And yet, astonishingly, the best of Muguruza was still to come.
After holding with authority in the second game of the second set, Muguruza got ready to strike again. She blasted a couple of big returns to get to break point, and then chose that all-important moment to show off her full repertoire. In a single rally, Muguruza produced a down-the-line backhand missile, a full-stretch forehand dig, a lob and a swing volley, before ending the point with a perfectly placed drop shot winner.
Poor Svitolina could only throw up her hands in resignation and accept that her opponent was too good.
We’ve seen brilliant tennis from Muguruza before — you don’t win two Grand Slams without playing brilliant tennis — but Saturday was a different kind of performance from her. She was aggressive and yet patient, powerful yet crafty, dominant yet resilient.
When she went down two break points while serving for the match, the fears of an implosion resurfaced. But we should have known better by then; Muguruza calmly put the ball back in play just when she needed to, and waited for Svitolina to press and make an error — which she duly did.
“I was very concentrated and focused on what I had to do,” Muguruza said after the match. “Everything went pretty quickly my way, so I’ll take it.”
She may have been selling herself a little short there. Yes, everything did go her way, but that wasn’t out of some divine intervention or dumb luck. To beat a player like Svitolina with that scoreline, and on a day when the Ukrainian made just 12 unforced errors, you need a different kind of composure. And Muguruza, to everyone’s surprise, made it look easy.
The Spaniard also talked about her Kilimanjaro adventure in the post-match presentation, and said that she craves adrenaline so much you could call her a ‘bit of an addict’. If adrenaline is what she craves, she will get a lot more of it on Monday, when she takes the court for her fourth-round match against Kiki Bertens.
Some of us might have forgotten what it is like to see Muguruza playing high-quality tennis in the second week of a Slam. But the woman has always belonged to the big stage; it just took a trip to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro to remind herself of that.
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Updated Date: Jan 25, 2020 20:39:14 IST