MELBOURNE—When Garbine Muguruza won titles at Roland Garros in 2016 and Wimbledon a year later, she did so with exceptional depth, power and an impressive amount of composure.
But in nine subsequent Grand Slam events since that Wimbledon run, Muguruza had only once gone past the fourth round. Most recently, she lost in the first round of both Wimbledon and the US Open last year. Unseeded in Melbourne, when this tournament began, the 26-year-old was the personification of two contrasting sports cliches: a flash in the pan or a dangerous floater.
The envelope please: and the award goes to ... the floater. On Wednesday, Muguruza reached the semis of the Australian Open for the first time with a 7-5, 6-3 win over the 30th seed, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. It would be inaccurate to call this an upset. In addition to her two major crowns, Muguruza had won four of her five previous matches against Pavlyuchenkova, with the Russian’s only win coming as a mid-match retirement.
Another intriguing subtext was that, for the last four months, Pavlyuchenkova has been working with Muguruza’s former coach, Sam Sumyk.
“I play the player, I don’t play the team,” said Muguruza prior to the match.
Today’s effort hardly commenced with elegance. Eight games in, the two had each broken one another’s serve twice. Though Pavlyuchenkova had held a point for 5-3 on her serve, Muguruza broke back for 4-all.
Gradually, Muguruza’s play began to pick up. At 5-all, she held at love. In the next game, the Russian made it easy for Muguruza, double-faulting three times in the deuce court, and then handing over the set by missing an easy backhand.
“I kind of just got focused on those double-faults,” said Pavlyuchenkova. “It's not like I couldn't move on, but it kind of hurt me a lot.”
Through the early part of the second set, it was hard to see how Pavlyuchenkova was going to alter the flow and explore new methods. Then again, the challenge of losing a close set is determining if the fault lies more in execution or tactics.
“It was little bit of everything," said Pavlyuchenkova. "She also played good. You got to give her credit.
"I guess my serve, I wasn't serving so good today. Then there was, like, a little bit of frustration."
Alas, Pavyluchenkova is another case of a player who can be quite thoughtful in conversation, but was trained to play the game in an incredibly narrow, linear way. So it was that flat ball-striking from both players continued, quite comfortably for Muguruza. After making 16 unforced errors in the first set, she only made five in the second.
With Pavlyuchenkova serving at 2-3, Muguruza reached 0-40, aided per usual by her forceful groundstrokes. Pavlyuchenkova, never the most confident of servers, double-faulted.
“Then the emotions and everything went a little bit down,” she said. “Maybe I went down on myself, which I do a lot, but today maybe a little bit too much. Right away your energy and execution got worse.”
From 4-2 up, Muguruza comfortably ran it out, going up 40-0 in the 5-3 game and winning it on her second match point.
Muguruza next plays Simona Halep. The Spaniard leads this rivalry 3-2 Halep won their most recent match, prevailing in straight sets in the semis of the 2018 French Open.
“She's a very solid player,” said Muguruza. “She plays very consistency through all these years.”
Navratilova: Muguruza is playing like a champion
It’s a good sight to see Muguruza back in contention. Another good sight: Conchita Martinez, back in Muguruza's coaching corner, rekindling a majorly successful partnership.
In the first round, versus Shelby Rogers, Muguruza lost the first set 6-0 before turning it around.
“It definitely has been from low to high,” said Muguruza, “not starting at my best, then each day recovering.”
Last fall, Muguruza climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. Asked today about that trek, Muguruza said, “Definitely was a life-changing experience. I cannot give a simple answer to such a complicated question because it's not the right moment to talk about it.”
Then again, perhaps these words can explain this fortnight’s turnaround in Muguruza’s game: “However you make your living is where your talent lies.”
They were written by Ernest Hemingway, in the story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”