Three finals. One title. An 18-4 record.
Garbine Muguruza is the player of 2021 so far.
Sure, she didn’t win the only Grand Slam of the year, but she might have done if things had gone a little differently. She held two match points against Naomi Osaka in the quarter-finals at 5-3 up in the third set but couldn’t convert either. Osaka won the game and the next three in a row and then went on to secure the title.
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But as Osaka eyes up more Grand Slam success, Muguruza is shaping up to be her biggest rival.
The 27-year-old has won two Grand Slams herself (the French Open in 2016 and Wimbledon in 2017) and reached the final of the Australian Open last year. But, although she has also spent four weeks as world No 1, her career has been flashes and bursts of success. Her eight WTA titles, for example, are spread over seven years - only two, Wimbledon and Cincinnati in 2017, were in the same season. She also had a barren spell in 2018 and 2019 when she slipped from the top of the rankings down to No 36 in the world.
“I wanted to be better,” she said last year when reflecting on her downturn in form.
I think the toughest moments are when you work hard, work like before or even harder, and you don’t feel like results are coming fast.
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The hiring of Conchita Martinez – a fellow Spaniard and the 1994 Wimbledon champion – appears to have played a big part. Muguruza won Wimbledon in 2017 with Martinez in her corner as her coach at the time, Sam Sumyk, couldn’t attend due to personal reasons. Muguruza split with Sumyk in the summer of 2019 and hired Martinez ahead of the 2020 season. The player-coach relationship now appears a little more relaxed than it previously did.
“I feel Conchita might be a little bit more easy-going,” Muguruza said in 2018. “She understands sometimes more the player's view. I think Sam is stricter, and a lot of energy out there.”
Martinez kept in close touch with Muguruza in Doha last week even when she was forced to quarantine in her hotel after testing positive for Covid-19. She watched training sessions and matches on her phone and also spoke to Muguruza during practice.
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“She's always with us, watching my practices and on my ear kind of with my beads. I connect them and I can hear her," said the world No 13. “I even practised one day, part of the practice with the earphone and just tried to have a laugh also out of all this, because it's tough and we have to adapt all the time to every circumstance. But so far we are finding a way.”
Muguruza finished runner-up in Qatar, losing to Petra Kvitova in a one-sided final. That was Kvitova’s first title since 2019, and Muguruza ended her own near-two-year wait for a title this week in Dubai, beating three top-20 players in a row - Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka and Elise Mertens – before overcoming Barbora Krejcikova in the final.
It is Muguruza’s first WTA 1000 title since 2017 and welcome reward for an impressive start to the season that has seen her win far more matches than any other player on the ATP or WTA Tour. She has also won against high-quality opposition, with the average ranking of her opponents through 22 matches at 43.
“I always believed every time that I go out there, I’m one of the players that can get the trophy," she said after clinching her eighth career title. “There is proof this week, yes, but I’ve always believed that, in good moments and in bad moments.”
The challenge now for Muguruza is to keep winning. Can she maintain this consistency throughout the season - which she has struggled to do in her career so far - and can she win more Grand Slam titles?
After 10 matches in 13 days she is next set to play at the Miami Open, starting on March 23. There she will come up against Osaka, playing for the first time since the Australian Open, as well as perhaps Serena Williams, Simona Halep and Ashleigh Barty. That quartet were all absent in the Middle East and it will be fascinating to see how they fare against a rejuvenated Muguruza.
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