Australian Open 2020: Sofia Kenin and Garbine Muguruza seize opportunities to set up an unlikely final
Sofia Kenin and Garbine Muguruza seized their opportunities, even as their opponents faltered, to set up unlikely women's singles final at Australian Open
Playing in her first ever Slam semi-final, American tennis ace Sofia Kenin never betrayed any sign of nerves against Ashleigh Barty.
Before this tournament Kenin had never quite caught the fans’ eye the way her peers like Naomi Osaka or Bianca Andreescu have.
Garbine Muguruza came up with the goods when it really mattered to win a match that could easily have gone the other way.
Success – and Grand Slam success in particular – is all about opportunities. You may not play well the entire season, but if you’re able to take the chances that come your way in those four frenetic fortnights of the year, you carve out a special place for yourself in the history books.
But what about the players that don’t take their opportunities? Does history look at them kindly, or with the scornful eyes reserved for the also-rans lying in the shadow of the Slam champions?
Fortunately for Simona Halep and Ashleigh Barty, they don’t have to worry about being perceived as also-rans. They are both Slam champions already, and have enough to be proud of no matter what happens in the rest of their careers. But on an oppressively hot Thursday afternoon in Melbourne, they saw their hopes of further Slam success evaporate through their crippling inability to make the best use of their chances.
Barty was first up, against the spirited but inexperienced Sofia Kenin. The affable Aussie was buoyed by the vocal support of a packed Rod Laver Arena, and for much of the early going she played like the favorite too. She took care of her own serve and carved out three break points at 3-2, only for Kenin to wipe them all out with some controlled aggression.
The rest of the set went with serve, but the way Kenin had played those crunch points was an eye-opener. Barty was the more proactive player throughout, using her serve and forehand to get Kenin out of position, but when the pressure was at its highest, it was the American who was steadier.
That same pattern played out in the tiebreaker too. Barty was accurate on serve and authoritative with her forehand, going up two set points with a flurry of winners. But she couldn’t take her chances when she needed to. At 4-6 Kenin played another solid point to elicit a slice error from the Aussie, and at 5-6 the American hit an inch-perfect return before ending the point with a brave inside-out forehand winner.
Kenin then won the next two points too — the second with a ghastly forehand miss by Barty — to bag a set in which she always seemed to be playing catch-up. Barty’s forehand was the one dictating the proceedings for the majority of time, but when it mattered most, it was Kenin’s forehand that made the right plays.
Playing in her first ever Slam semi-final, Kenin never betrayed any sign of nerves. She was lively with her footwork and precise with her groundstrokes, and had an answer to everything that Barty threw at her.
Mid-way through the second set the Aussie started red-lining her world-class backhand slice, at one point hitting three consecutive winners off it to leave her opponent staring in disbelief. She went up a break and served for the set at 5-4, but there was always a lingering feeling that closing out a stubborn, nerveless competitor like Kenin would be hard work.
And so it proved to be. Barty went up two set points at 40-30 but then Kenin came up with a searing backhand winner, which was followed by another untimely forehand error from the World No 1. While Kenin did squander her first opportunity with a missed backhand of her own, she quickly made amends by powering through the very next one to set up a second break point.
That was where the pressure – of the moment, the stage, the opponent –reared its ugly head to the fullest. Barty had the whole court open for a forehand putaway, but she was late on the ball and slammed it into the net. Kenin had somehow clawed back to 5-5, and the result never seemed in doubt after that.
This was a match between an experienced home-court darling and an untested outsider, and to everyone’s surprise it was the outsider who displayed greater composure. Before this tournament Kenin had never quite caught the fans’ eye the way some of her peers like Naomi Osaka or Bianca Andreescu have with their spectacular shot-making, but what Kenin lacks in flash, she makes up for with self-belief.
"I believed I could win even though I had two set points down in the first," said Kenin after the match. "I was telling myself, 'I believe in myself. If I lose the set, I'm still going to come out and believe'…I feel like I had a clear mindset on how I want to play her."
Garbine Muguruza had a clear mindset on how to play her opponent too, the always-scrappy Halep. Muguruza carried a considerable firepower advantage coming into the match, which had proven decisive in all three of their previous hardcourt meetings — the last of which saw Muguruza conceding just one game in total.
But Halep had been playing super-aggressive tennis herself the entire tournament, and in the early part of their semi-final match on Thursday she was giving back as good as she got. Muguruza faced two break points in her very first service game as Halep looked to pounce on her second serve, but the Spaniard managed to escape by producing some fearless forehands just in the nick of time.
The set went with serve as Halep repeatedly forced Muguruza to hit an extra shot, while also putting away any short balls she herself got through her deep counterpunches. The Romanian’s forehand in particular seemed to be giving Muguruza a lot of trouble, and some of the winners she hit off it inspired as many oohs and aahs from the audience as Muguruza’s effortless missiles.
But the Spaniard has been unusually proactive with her thinking this tournament, adapting her game to different kinds of challenges with ease. She soon realised that going for broke on everything was not a viable long-term strategy for this match, especially with Halep looking to control the baseline with her forehand, so she decided to engage her opponent a few longer rallies.
It was a tactic fraught with risk, given Halep’s reputation as the best defender in the world. But on this day it paid off, as Muguruza herself was feeling the ball well enough to keep finding safe spots with her groundstrokes.
At 3-3 she didn’t just find safe spots, but also impossible spots. She ended two rallies with perfectly struck forehands that even Halep couldn’t retrieve, and got the break as an overwhelmed Halep coughed up a backhand unforced error.
Muguruza, however, would go on to give up the break while serving for the set at 5-4, as she was afflicted by closing-out jitters. And at 5-6 she seemed to abandon the game-plan that had been working well for her, pulling the trigger too early to go down two set points.
But Halep couldn’t take her chance, as Muguruza fired an ace and a big forehand to wipe both of them out. The Romanian would get two more set points in the ensuring tiebreaker, but she squandered those too — one with a backhand error, and another with a forehand miss.
A topsy-turvy set finally landed in Muguruza’s lap, but Halep wasn’t done yet. She continued putting pressure on the Spaniard with her down-the-line drives, and after exchanging breaks at the start of the second set she went up a seemingly decisive one at 4-2.
When Halep served for the set at 5-4, she seemed fully in control of the proceedings and her own game. But her inability to keep her foot on the pedal came back to haunt her, as she failed to keep her groundstrokes in the court when it mattered the most.
Three times in that game Halep went a break point down by making an unforced error, and that’s three times too many. Muguruza had recognised once again that hitting with consistent depth and forcing Halep to come up with something special was her best bet, and when she broke back to level at 5-5 the writing was — just like in the Barty vs Kenin match — on the wall.
But there was another trick that Muguruza wanted to show off, and by choosing to bring it out in the dying stages she made sure the match ended on a thrillingly dramatic note. Up until that point Muguruza was winning the baseline exchanges mainly through her superior firepower, but in the game at 5-6 she did something that nobody expected her to: out-defend the defender extraordinaire.
With the sun blazing down on the court and both women looking fatigued, Halep looked to end points quickly while Muguruza looked to elongate them. The Spaniard ran from corner to corner like her life depended on it, doing to Halep what Halep does to so many players on a weekly basis. And the Romanian, unable to maintain her focus in the harsh conditions, lost the range on her groundstrokes and made one final backhand error to hand Muguruza the match.
“I wasn’t thinking I was down, at some point you’ll have your opportunities,” Muguruza said after the match. “I knew facing Simona it was going to be a hard match. I was hanging in there and fighting with all the energy I had.”
That’s an apt description of what happened towards the end of the match, and perhaps the greatest sign yet that Muguruza is a changed woman this Australian Open. Even as her opponent failed to take her opportunities and ended up losing a winnable match, Muguruza finds herself at the other end of the spectrum: she came up with the goods when it really mattered to win a match that could easily have gone the other way, and now has another Slam final to show for her efforts.
What’s that I had said about Slam success being all about opportunities again?
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