Can you be a French Open specialist? Muguruza looks ready to try

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Garbine Muguruza defeated Anett Kontaveit, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-2, to advance to the third round of the French Open. (AP)

“I lost to her not long ago, so I did something different,” Garbiñe Muguruza said after her 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-2 win over Anett Kontaveit on Court Philippe Chatrier on Wednesday. “Different in a good way.”

Muguruza might have felt the need to add that last phrase because “different” hasn’t always meant “good” for her since she blazed her way to the championship at this tournament a year ago. After Roland Garros, she went just 13-13 for the rest of 2016. This season she has been marginally better, but in the last 12 months she has reached just one semifinal, and that was a week-and-a-half ago in Rome.

Is that all she needs? Last year a semifinal run in Rome was enough to catapult her all the way through Paris. Could Muguruza be the sport’s first French Open specialist? At the start of the event, she talked about how much she loves the city, and how happy she was to be back. This is what everyone says about Paris, of course, and what every tennis player says about any town where they’ve won a tournament. Even given that, though, Muguruza really did make a convincing case that she has a special connection with the city. Roland Garros is where she announced herself to the world by beating Serena Williams in 2014, where she has reached the quarterfinals or better the last three years and where she now has an 18-3 record.

Still, when Muguruza fell behind 1-4 in the first set, and was nearly broken again for 1-5, I wouldn’t have put money on her making a comeback. Kontaveit was the much more dynamic player, moving more easily and hitting the ball with more authority. Not only had she beaten Muguruza in their last match, but the Estonian had also beaten Angelique Kerber on her way to the quarterfinals in Rome. There was no reason to think her level would come down on Wednesday.

In the past, the Muguruza we’ve seen in the first few games of a match has typically been the Muguruza we’ve gotten the rest of the way. Either she’s on or she’s off, and there often doesn’t seem to be much she can do about it. But that wasn’t the case on Wednesday. After scrapping her way to a hold for 2-4 in the first, Muguruza settled down and became a different player. Maybe that’s what playing on Chatrier does for her.

That early, essential service hold from Muguruza set the pattern for the match. Time after time, she would fall behind and bounce back. Muguruza came back from 3-5 in the first to force a tiebreaker. She came from a break down in the second set, and late in the third she went down 0-30 on her serve before patiently working herself out of that jam as well.

What was different, in a good way, about her play? Muguruza took her time and made every serve count. During rallies, rather than going for outright winners, she played with a kind of conservative forcefulness—she swung out, hit hard and didn’t hold back, but she also aimed safely inside the lines. In that way, she was able to take the initiative away from Kontaveit without taking undue risks. Just as important, it seemed to me, was what she did between points. Instead of staring up at her coach or off into the distance when she lost a point, Muguruza looked directly in front of her. Maybe knowing that she couldn’t call out her coach, Sam Sumyk, helped her stay within herself and not look for solutions anywhere else.

“Even though I was losing a set and 3-1,” Muguruza said, “I didn’t give up. I was thinking, ‘She’s going to have to really beat me here.’ I didn’t let myself go down.

“I was just hanging there, being aggressive, waiting for my moment, and in the third set it came.”

Muguruza is one of several women who were “waiting for their moment” in Paris. This is a field with a lot of “confidence players.” Kerber, Simona Halep, Kristina Mladenovic, Madison Keys, Karolina Pliskova, Sam Stosur: When they believe, they’re tough for anyone to beat; when they don’t, they can lose to anyone. Often all they need is to survive one tight match, and they can flip a switch and go on a winning run. That’s what happened to Halep in Madrid, and what didn’t happen to Kerber this spring.

Was this the match when Muguruza flipped the switch? With her, it can flip back just as quickly and unexpectedly, and it could happen as soon as Friday. Her next opponent, Yulia Putintseva, is something of a Roland Garros specialist herself. Last year here, Muguruza dropped a set in the first round, found a way through and didn’t drop another. If she can do that again, we’ll have to say that Paris really is different for her, in a very good way.

Tennis Channel's Daily Serve recaps Day 4 at Roland Garros:

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