On Wednesday, as Garbiñe Muguruza and Aryna Sabalenka slugged and grunted their way toward the finish line of their second-round match in Doha, two thoughts kept crossing my mind. (1) This could end up being one of the best contests of 2021; and (2) It’s too bad that the prevailing attitude about tennis among the general public is that “only the Slams count.”
Yes, this is a relatively quiet week in early March; no, Doha isn’t a top-level WTA tournament; and no, what happens here won’t be remembered forever. But if Muguruza-Sabalenka doesn’t count, nothing in the sport should.
It’s been one of those weeks when tennis shows us how much it can offer even at a seemingly slow moment in the season. In Rotterdam, we’ve seen Andy Murray struggle mightily against the limits of age and injury, and watched the Next Gen struggle, with uneven results, to transcend their flaws. In Lyon, we’ve seen Clara Tauson, a highly touted 18-year-old from Denmark, knock off the top seed and reach the semifinals. And alongside Muguruza and Sabalenka in Doha, Jessica Pegula has continued her remarkable mid-career makeover.
In the hopes of making them count, at least for a day, here’s a look at five things that have caught my eye this week.
Karolina Pliskova and coach Sascha Bajin weren't able to meet up mid-match in Doha. (Getty Images)
1. No On-Court Coaching, No Problem
As part of its Covid-era protocols, the WTA suspended its decade-old rule that allows for on-court coaching. After failing to notice the change at the tour events in Australia, I started to feel as if some element of the game was missing in Doha. Normally, this is a place where we see coaches hurrying onto the court, rattling off as much advice as they can during a changeover, and hurrying back off. Without them, Doha has felt little more serene and orderly this time around.
I’ve liked on-court coaching in the past. I liked hearing what would normally be private tactical discussions; I liked getting a glimpse of the coach-player relationship at its most tense; I liked that the coaches became characters in the story. Or at least I thought I did. This week I’ve found myself enjoying the greater peace that seems to descend over a match when there are no interruptions, no interactions, no microphones, no words—when it’s just tennis. The players can still be coached from the bleachers, but we don’t hear it, and maybe that’s the way it should be.
Garbine Muguruza prepares to begin each return point with a mix of wide-eyed eagerness and nervousness. (Getty Images)
2. Living and Dying With Garbiñe
Speaking of on-court coaching in Doha, Garbiñe Muguruza is one player who doesn’t seem to miss it. Four years ago at this event, Muguruza made headlines when she snapped at her coach at the time, Sam Sumyk, “Tell me something I don’t know.” By that summer, she said she could tell that fans were waiting to see if fireworks would go off whenever she called Sumyk out on court.
So far in Doha this year, Muguruza has been just fine without her current coach, Conchita Martinez, on court or off. Martinez tested positive for Covid and has been isolated this week, away from the facility. But Muguruza, a two-time Grand Slam champion, has been at her best in knocking off Veronica Kudermetova, Sabalenka and Maria Sakkari in straight sets. It set up a semifinal showdown with Victoria Azarenka—but the match was scrapped after Vika withdrew injured.
For me, tennis is a better sport when Muguruza is playing it well and winning. I feel the same way about Simona Halep. In both cases, it’s the transparency of their desire to win and live up to their own expectations—their mix of persistence, hope and put-it-on-the-line vulnerability—that is appealing. Muguruza seems constantly to be in a battle to believe in herself, and a battle to believe that she’ll be rewarded for her effort. You can see it in the way she sets up to return serve: She holds her racquet in front of her and shifts back and forth with mix of wide-eyed eagerness and nervousness.
You feel the joy and relief when Muguruza succeeds, and you feel the disappointment when she doesn’t. In the past, her loss to Naomi Osaka at this year's Australian Open, where she held two match points, might have killed her confidence for months. So far, this time, it has made her stronger.
Andy Murray isn't taking anything for granted, and neither should we. (Getty Images)
3. Andy Murray Plays for His Career
“Every time I lose a match, I’m getting told to retire, and that I’m finished,” Murray said in Rotterdam.
I have to admit, watching him struggle through an opening-round loss the previous week in Montpellier, I wondered how long Murray’s comeback would last. He’s ranked No. 124, and he’ll be 34 in a couple of months; more important, he was having trouble getting any kind of pace or penetration on his forehand. In Montpellier, his groundstrokes floated up and landed in the middle of the court. There didn’t seem to be any way he could survive at the ATP level with that game.
Happily, Murray was better in Rotterdam. He won his first-round match over Robin Haase in three sets, and kept it close early against Andrey Rublev. While Murray’s old rivals Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal continue to divvy up the majors between them, Murray is, as he said, “playing for his career.” The effort almost certainly won’t end with another Grand Slam title or a return to the Top 10, but it will be interesting to watch a former No. 1 and future Hall-of-Famer, metal hip and all, try to rebuild his game from scratch one more time.
Clara Tauson, shown here at Roland Garros last fall, is continuing her ascent in 2021. (Getty Images)
4. Getting Clara-ty
While Murray has brought us the drama of the struggling veteran in Rotterdam, Clara Tauson has played the opposite role—the phenom—in Lyon. The 18-year-old from Denmark has won five matches there, two in qualifying and three in the main draw, without dropping a set. Despite squandering six match points, she knocked off top seed Ekaterina Alexandrova in the first round.
Tauson, of Denmark, has been on the radar for a little while now. She reached the semifinals of the girls’ event at Roland Garros in 2018, and won the Australian Open juniors in 2019. More pertinent for her pro chances, she’s also six feet tall, with the serve to show for it, and this week her lethal forehand drive has been too much for her opponents to handle. On Friday, in a 6-3, 6-1 win over Camila Giorgi, Tauson also showed deft feel on a defensive lob that she dropped onto the baseline for a winner.
Tauson has the height, the arm, the hands. The last question, and maybe the most important question in today’s game, is whether she’ll have the feet. Can she defend as well as attack? It’s a question for another week. For now, it’s just nice to have a new name to look for in every draw.
In Rotterdam, Stefanos Tsitsipas has been great when it's mattered most. (Getty Images)
5. Growing Pains
In my Rotterdam preview, I wrote that the tournament could be a sneak peak at what Grand Slam draws will look like three or four years from now. Among the Top 8 seeds were Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Andrey Rublev, Alexander Zverev and Felix Auger-Aliassime. As of Friday, only two of them—Tsitsipas and Rublev—survived. Medvedev, Zverev, and FAA all went out in the first round.
If this indicates anything, it’s that the Next Gen will likely mark the return of humanity to the ATP tour. By humanity, of course, I mean flaws. It’s hard to remember now, but before the advent of the Big 3, it wasn’t normal for players to win virtually every match they played, and almost never make first-round exits. In their early defeats in Rotterdam, Medvedev and Zverev each showed that, despite their improvements, each can succumb to the same issues that have plagued them in the past: For Zverev, it’s passive play; for Medvedev, it’s a self-disrupting temper.
At the same time, this week we’ve seen Tsitsipas continue to try to fix one of his own flaws: A penchant for fading down the stretch in close matches. In his last two rounds, Tsitsipas has edged Hubert Hurkacz and Karen Khachanov, 7-5 in the third set. In both cases, he looked shaky for stretches, before clamping down and finishing strong.
It may not have happened at a Grand Slam, but for Tsitsipas every close win counts.