In a Yarra Valley Classic draw that boasts world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty and 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, it’s No. 6 seed Garbiñe Muguruza who has looked the most dangerous ahead of the first major tournament of the season.
Muguruza has dropped nine games in three matches, and while Barty and Williams were both taken to 10-point tie-breaks in the abbreviated format necessitated by Thursday’s suspended action, the Spaniard put down 10 aces to sweep aside Sofia Kenin in a rematch of their 2020 Australian Open final, 6-2, 6-2.
“I knew it was going to be a very tough game from the baseline, because I remember very clearly the last match,” she told reporters after the 71-minute win. “So, I was looking for it, I was more prepared to for the biggest battle, you know? And I think I played better, I think I used my shots smarter, took my chances and I think I did well early, so I got the advantage of the score and then I kept playing well and dominated the match.”
Domination is indeed an understatement to describe Muguruza’s week in Melbourne. She struck a whopping 26 winners on Friday—more than double her unforced errors—and hasn’t played a set closer than 6-2 against either Kenin or game opposition like Alison Van Uytvanck and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
“This is a good tournament just to play and to be able to put on the court everything we have been working, knowing that next week we have a Grand Slam, so I’m trying to play more freely, just to get those exercises, serves, and volleys—stuff that everybody has been working on.”
Twice a Grand Slam champion, Muguruza struggled mightily after winning the 2017 Wimbledon Championships, making it past the quarterfinals only once at nine subsequent major tournaments. From a career milestone of world No. 1, she nearly fell out of the Top 40 at the end of 2019, when she lost to Kenin in the first round of the China Open.
A Melbourne fairytale was nonetheless within her grasp just last year. After reuniting with coach Conchita Martinez over the off-season, she reversed an 0-6 opening set to Shelby Rogers in the first round and stunned Simona Halep en route to her first major final in almost three years, only to again be undone by the on-fire American.
Still, Muguruza, it seemed, was back—though she took umbrage at the idea that she had ever left.
“I was on the tour, guys,” she insisted at the time. “I didn't disappear.”
Stunted by the sudden pandemic, the 27-year-old bowed out early at the US Open and Roland Garros, and began 2021 as a wild card once again, clearly capable of stunning tennis but equally so of perfunctory losses, like one she suffered to Maria Sakkari in Abu Dhabi back to start her season in January.
“I feel like we have to kind of adapt this year all the time,” she noted after defeating Pavlyuchenkova. “I feel like I have to stop thinking about what I was doing before, and just take the opportunity this year because it's definitely not going to be the same. Yes, probably in the past, I would rather get ready and prepare in a different way, but I did that before. Luckily, I had two weeks to prepare, so I was forward to competing, no matter if next week there is a Grand Slam. I feel like it's going to help me."
With the benefit of an extra week of matches in Melbourne Park, Muguruza has managed to adapt herself into world-beating form, but will look no further than her semifinal against Marketa Vondrousova.
“The more matches you play the better. I don't think playing well here means you're going to be playing well every tournament, or next week or the other week. I feel like right now I'm playing this tournament and it's going well. I do agree that winning matches helps you to feel that what you're doing is good and that's what I'm thinking.”