We're counting down the Top 10 matches of 2020 from Nov. 30 through Dec. 11. Click here to read each selection.
The ninth-best match of 2020 was a battle of the almosts: Muguruza and Azarenka, former No. 1s and two-time Grand Slam champions, each came a long way this season, only to fall one set short of full redemption. In the Australian Open final, Muguruza won the first set over Sofia Kenin, before the young American turned the rallies around and ran away with the last two. In the US Open final, Azarenka suffered a similar fate: Up a set and a break against Naomi Osaka, she didn’t have the firepower to fend off her younger opponent’s fiercer counter-attack.
Despite those bitter defeats, Muguruza and Azarenka held their heads high during the trophy ceremonies afterward. As well they should: Each spent 2020 reminding us how much the sport has missed their powerful games and steely personalities; each finished back in the Top 15; and each ended up as a contender for WTA Comeback Player of the Year.
In their only meeting of 2020, the Spaniard and the Belarusian also reminded us that we haven’t seen enough of them across the net from each other. When Azarenka won their first match, in Miami in 2016, in two tiebreakers, it seemed like the start of a rivalry that would be hotly contested for years to come. But their next two matches both ended with a retirement. Finally, this fall, we had a chance to see them go toe-to-toe through three tense sets, and to do it in one of the sport’s great venues, Pietrangeli stadium at the Foro Italico in Rome. In this case, the lack of fans was tolerable, because it gave us a chance to see that amphitheater in its white-marble glory.
Muguruza-Azarenka lived up to its setting. While it wasn’t the most beautiful or most brilliantly played match of 2020, it was among the toughest back-and-forth fights. From the start, each player challenged the other on serve. That wasn’t surprising, considering that they both have strong returns and sporadically shaky serves. In the opening set, Azarenka used her superior speed to range behind the baseline, brought Muguruza forward with her drop shot, and closed it out with a smash and a service winner.
In recent years, Muguruza might not have been resilient enough to rebound after a set like that. When she twice went down a break early in the second, it looked like that might be the case again. But service breaks didn’t turn out to be a problem on this day; there were seven of them in the nine-game second set alone. What mattered more was the return, and by now Muguruza was locked in on hers, as well as on her forehand and her smash, which she needed to finish the increasingly long, up-and-back rallies. After four deuces, Muguruza hung onto her serve at 5-3 and leveled the match.
The third set saw both players raise their levels, even as the momentum continued to see-saw between them. Muguruza went up 3-1, before Azarenka bounced back to lead 4-3, and earn a break point for 5-3. Again, Muguruza proved resilient. She snapped off a backhand winner to save break point, and hit two service winners to hold for 4-4. From there, the momentum swung to her side for good.
“I knew it was going to be a tough battle,” Muguruza said. “I was ready for it. I stood behind her and waiting for my opportunities. She was playing great at the beginning. She took the first set. I kept myself together and said, ‘Okay, let's start another battle in the second set.’”
Let’s hope Muguruza and Azarenka continue to battle this way in 2021, and that we see them face off a few more times. They’re too good to come up just short forever.