Aus Open site logo 15-28 Jan 18

Muguruza reflects on an incredible year

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Position vacant, Sports Illustrated declared it, as respected scribe Jon Wertheim declined - without condemnation, so even was the field - to nominate a women’s MVP on his end-of-year awards list. Yet those handing out the official gongs chose Garbine Muguruza as the world champion (ITF) and player of the year (WTA) despite Simona Halep finishing as No.1.

Muguruza was one of four different Grand Slam winners in a women’s season in which the spoils were so widely spread, shrugging off the malady she had suffered leading up to a French Open defence that ended in tears, and walking away from Wimbledon with the Venus Rosewater Dish balanced joyfully on her head just 41 days later.

“My year has been incredible and (the) best so far. I improved so many things,’’ Muguruza declared after the 2017 curtain was drawn with a straight sets round-robin loss to Venus Williams at the WTA Finals in Singapore. How different it had been at the All England Club in July when, after a tight first set against the elder Williams the Spanish 14th seed truly was Muguruthless in the second. A big-match temperament is reflected by a 2-1 record in major finals, and the fact that almost half of her career singles titles have been slams.

Certainly, she looks like she belongs on centre stage, with that regal bearing and dignified, not-til-I’m-ready-thanks gait. Muguruza reigned for four weeks at No.1, as one of five women to top the rankings throughout 2017, ending just 40 points behind Halep and 120 ahead of Caroline Wozniacki in a tightly-bunched leading group.

The potential return of Serena Williams adds some extra intrigue, although Muguruza is not one to be intimidated, as the 2016 French Open decider confirmed. It was afterwards that she struggled - failing to reach another final for a full year, unable to adjust mentally and accept she could not play that well every week.
“The French Open had been such a big boom for me,’’ she admitted in August. “My first grand slam victory, all very ‘oh, my God’.’’

There were no surprises the second time, however, and no lengthy delay before more significant silverware was earned - this time in Cincinnati, via a finals rout of Halep after eliminating Madison Keys, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Karolina Pliskova along the way.

“I feel like right now it's helping me rather than maybe holding me back, like it did a little bit last year,’’ Muguruza said when asked about her follow-up Slam success. “So that's something that I really wanted to change from last year and improve that. Yeah, I'm taking a good path there.’’

Although her season tailed off a little in Asia, not helped by illness and injury, Muguruza complemented her two titles by reaching the semis or better at five other tournaments, including Brisbane, where she is top seed at the Brisbane International this week. She feels much more “complete” and mature than even a year ago, and certainly has the punishing all-court game to be a force for many more.

Her coaching situation remains a point of interest, and not a little curiosity, with Muguruza’s Wimbledon success overseen by Spain’s former Fed and Davis Cup captain Conchita Martinez in the absence of regular mentor Sam Sumyk, whose wife Meilin Tu was due to give birth. Although few have forgotten that infamous courtside exchange in Miami, when Sumyk sternly rebuked his charge for swearing at him, Team Garbine remains unchanged.

So to 2018. Having posted tournament bests at both the hardcourt majors by reaching the fourth round and quarters respectively, the 24-year-old returns to Melbourne Park as a leading contender, her high-risk game as imposing as her on-court demeanour so often is.

Muguruza was No.1, briefly. Surely will be again. Asked what it felt like to play with that number beside her name for the first time, she said at the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open: “I didn't feel that different. I felt like I was the favourite, of course. I think I'm the favourite now everywhere I go, kind of.’’ And does she like it?

“I think I'm going to say more yes than no because it's a great thing to have. That pressure everywhere you go, that responsibility, I think it's good to have it. It's worst if you are there and nobody expects you to win.’’ Not a problem for Muguruza, one would think. Position vacant may be filled soon.

AO Profile: Garbine Muguruza

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