On her fourth try, Halep becomes No. 1

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Simona Halep would have been forgiven if her reaction after beating Jelena Ostapenko Saturday in Beijing were one of relief.

Instead, it was pure joy.

Okay, maybe there was a little relief mixed in there somewhere.

The momentous victory meant that on Monday, the 26-year-old Romanian officially will become the No. 1 ranked player on the WTA Tour, for the first time in her career.

She will be the first Romanian, and the 25th in the history of the WTA Tour, to rise to the top spot. She also will be the fourth in less than six months. Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova and Garbiñe Muguruza have all owned the top spot since March.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCaBIVVpHjq6j3tSyxwTE-8Q

Halep, like Pliskova (and Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Jankovic before them), ascended to the top spot before winning her first major title.

A bumpy road straightens out in Beijing

For Halep, older than all but Kerber, it was a long time coming.

Three times over the last four months, Halep was one victory away from claiming the top spot. The first three opportunities – in the French Open final against Ostapenko, at Wimbledon, and in Cincinnati – hadn’t gone well.

This time, she somehow put aside the accumulated pressure, the nerves, and the failures. She went to the line, and served it out as though it were the first set in her first-round match.

Even if she admitted her legs were shaking before that last point.

“I still say the toughest moment on court was the French Open final. It was the first opportunity to be No.1 and to win the first Grand Slam. I was devastated after that match. Then I just kept working. I said it’s going to happen one day, I just have to get on court and work harder, which I did,” Halep said afterwards, on a podcast on the WTA Tour website. “Darren (coach Darren Cahill) always told me that if you keep working you can do it. So today I did it after so many tough moments.”

That Halep is a good enough player and athlete to become No. 1 – especially in this era, when that top sport is so very much up for grabs – was rarely in question.

In a year of up-and-down results, of players reaching great heights only to stumble a few steps down the hill the following week, she was as capable as anyone.

But for her, compared to some, all the cylinders need to fire.

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Coach Anabel Medina Garrigues came out when Ostapenko was down a break in the second set, remind her of Halep’s “situation” and telling her to stay with her. She won eight straight points after that. But Halep was able to kill the momentum and go on to victory. (Screenshot: WTA.TV)

You just had to look over to the other side of the net Saturday to see Ostapenko. The 20-year-old from Latvia rode an insouciant confidence and the resultant ability to hit screaming winners to a French Open title.

That title came, as it happens, against the more well-rounded and experienced Halep.

For Ostapenko, the challenge will come when that confidence isn’t where it is now, and when opponents begin to figure out how to exploit the weaknesses in her game.

At times, Halep her own worst enemy

For Halep, the challenge so often has been to overcome herself.

Her humanizing self-doubt, a combination of cultural and personal, has meant that “her day”, as she referred to it on court Saturday, has only come at age 26.

“First place is the mental strength. The game I always had. I was there close many times, 2014 in Singapore. But the mental part I was not very close. This year for sure is the best way that I’ve been on court. The attitude now I’m happy about it. I’m not ashamed anymore,” she said on the WTA podcast. “I could not control my nerves, I could not control myself. And I was talking too bad to myself. I don’t deserve that because I’m working hard and I just have to appreciate myself more.”

It took a few turning points.

The first may well have come when a frustrated Cahill briefly said goodbye after Miami.

The affable Aussie, who has coached a youngster (Lleyton Hewitt) and an oldster (Andre Agassi) to No. 1, had reaching a breaking point.

After the French Open, Halep said, she had a psychologist who made a difference. There also was another man, a Romanian, with whom she worked at home.

“I really want to thank them because they showed me what I need to improve and what I have to change to be better on court, which I did it and credit to them, she said.

And then, there was the match against Maria Sharapova at the US Open – a very tough first-round draw for both, and a win for Sharapova.

“After the match, I talked to Darren and he told me my serve was s**t and that’s why I lost the match. So I said okay, if that’s the only one thing I can improve to beat her, then I work for it,” she told the WTA

Beefed up serve, lessons learned

Halep said she’s been out on the court hitting serves an hour a day. And the improved velocity this week in Beijing is the reward for all that work.

She crushed Sharapova 6-2, 6-2 in the third round.

But despite all the fuss made about it – one comparison was made to Rafael Nadal’s serving velocity when he won the US Open in 2010 –the serve wasn’t new territory.

We can recall a few years ago, when she first got on the top-player radar in 2014, that her serving velocity easily got up to the 105-107 mph range.

It was a matter of getting back to it, with the increased experience to be able to keep the velocity up without sacrificing location and consistency.

Back then, Halep already was a master at changing the direction of a hard-hit ball – taking a cross-court shot down the line with her backhand, more specifically.

Before that final game, Halep looked slightly nauseous. It’s hard to even fathom the thoughts that were rushing through her head.

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Halep looked slightly nauseous before she went out to serve for the match and the No. 1 ranking. But she did it with aplomb. (Screenshot: WTA.TV)

But in those final points against Ostapenko, she showed all of those skills. She sent her younger scrambling from corner to corner until the Latvian was in positions from where it was impossible to pull the trigger. She hit big serves out wide to take control of the points. With one final forehand down the line, and a leap in the air, she had done it.

WTA on-court celebrations

The WTA Tour made a big to-do about the accomplishment immediately after the match.

They had CEO Steve Simon and president Mickey Lawler and all the tournament officials ready to trot out on the court for a photo opportunity. They had a beautiful No. 1 made of flowers ready – a tribute Halep hugged as if she didn’t want to let it go. They had the tribute video all prepared for the giant screens.

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The various suits came out for a photo op with the new No. 1 after the win. A nice touch would have been to add the members of Halep’s team on hand. (Screenshot: WTA.TV)

There was an element of potential jinx to all of that advance preparation. You wonder if Halep saw the WTA executives hanging around and knew exactly what they were there for.

But it was a rare moment when an accomplishment could be immediately and publicly celebrated.

First true No. 1 celebration of 2017

The other occasions over the last year when a player became No. 1 weren’t nearly as neat and tidy, tailor-made for an instant tribute.

Garbiñe Muguruza, who was supplanted with the Halep victory, ascended to the No. 1 spot after her fourth-round exit from the US Open when Karolina Pliskova failed to defend her finalist points from the previous year with a loss in the quarterfinals a few days later.

Pliskova became No. 1 on the second Tuesday at Wimbledon when Johanna Konta defeated Halep in the quarterfinals. Pliskova had gone out in the second round.

Angelique Kerber became No. 1 again last March when Serena Williams withdrew from Indian Wells and Miami, citing “bad knees that didn’t allow her to train.” Of course, it turns out there was a much better reason.

A year ago at the US Open, Kerber became No. 1 for the first time after Pliskova defeated Williams in the semifinal – before Kerber even took to the court for her own.

This time, it all came together as one.

One more step for Halep

But there’s no time to celebrate. Halep still has a job to do.

She will meet an in-form Caroline Garcia in the Beijing final Sunday to win her fourth Premier Mandatory-level title.

In the absence so far of a Grand Slam title on her resumé, Premier Mandatory titles are Halep’s biggest efforts to date.

On the other side of the net, another milestone is in the works.

Garcia, whose season began with some Fed Cup drama and more back woes, has been surging.

She won Wuhan (a Premier 5 event) last week. And she was able to keep the momentum going and the energy up during a grueling week in Beijing.

On the WTA Tour this year, that has been a rare ironwoman streak. That it comes so late in the season is even more impressive.

Garcia survived a three-hour, 21-minute marathon against Elina Svitolina in the quarterfinals Friday and backed it up with a straight-sets win over Petra Kvitova in Saturday’s semifinal.

Sunday will be Garcia’s fifth straight day on the courts. But the end goal is within reach: a win would put the Frenchwoman into position to earn the final singles qualifying spot in Singapore for the first time in her career.

(All screenshots from WTA.TV)

Spanish Davis/Fed Cup captain fired

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After rough sailing the last few years, these were supposed to be new and calmer seas for the suits at the Spanish Tennis Federation.

Instead, its first big move was to fire former Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez. Twice.

The RFET relieved Martinez of her duties as Davis Cup captain and Fed Cup captain Thursday. It was one of those “We love you, really, but we’re still breaking up with you” announcements.

“At the meeting held this morning in Barcelona, ​​the members of the Board unanimously agreed to a change in the direction of our professional teams, highlighting the great work Conchita Martínez has done during these years at the head of our most emblematic tennis teams,” the federation’s statement said.

The board said Martinez “has done a great job. ” But ….. “we have decided to make a change, by general consensus, as we face new challenges in 2018.”

They said it will announce new captains “in the coming days”.

That probably means they already know who they are.

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Captain Martinez hugs Muguruza after a win over Serbia in February, 2016.

Typically, in these types of circumstances (note how many players and coaches, when they part ways, always do soand by “mutual agreement), the former captain will play ball.

He or she will talk about how it was a great experience. And they’ll speak warmly about how much they appreciated the opportunity, bla bla bla.

Martinez chose not do go that route. Instead, she’s being honest.

Here’s her statement (roughly translated from Spanish).

Disappointment and disrespect

“I want to share with you my disappointment and unease towards the RFET, which advised me late this afternoon that will not count on me for next season.

“It is very ungrateful, after you take over a ship in stormy seas and steer it towards calm and compromise, to be cast overboard. With the arrival of the new board, the situation was supposed to change. But it is more of the same; tennis still is not a priority,” Martinez wrote in her statement. “Given the complicated circumstances, I have accepted their decision. If the situation were different, I would not.”

Martinez wrote with the neglect she felt the last few months from the board, she pretty much figured her days were numbered. One big warning sign was when, for the first time in recent years, the new board of directors decided against her traveling to the Grand Slam events to meet face-to-face with the players on her players and keep track of their progress. 

This is something just about all Fed Cup and Davis Cup captains do, as a matter of routine.

“I’m proud to have been able to work with the best tennis players in the world. It hurts for the fans, with whom I share a love and passion for tennis, who have been there always supporting us in every match, on television, in the stands or with their messages through social networks,” she wrote. “My motivation and desire remain intact, just like my first day. I would have liked to continue, but the RFET’s decision is unilateral”

Martinez said that after all her contributions to Spanish tennis, she didn’t deserve to be fired in what considers such a disrespectful manner.

Can’t argue that.

New Fed – same as the old Fed

The Spanish Tennis Federation has been a dog’s breakfast in recent years. And its high-profile players refused to play ball.

Martinez
The Spanish Fed Cup team beat Italy a year ago, and proudly carried the flag.

When even Carlos Moyá couldn’t get them to commit to play Davis Cup, he resigned. Spain was crushed by Brazil in a playoff tie in Sept. 2014, and Roberto Bautista Agut was the only singles player ranked in the top 500 who committed to play. So the federation played its hand in a show of “executive power”.

It decided to unilaterally bring in a former WTA Tour player, Gala León Garcia, to become the new Davis Cup captain. Among the other names put forth at the time were people like Juan Carlos Ferrero, a former No. 1.

The power move backfired, big time.

The players objected to having someone they barely even knew (even in her previous administrative functions with the federation) forced upon them. And so León Garcia cried sexism. The top guns boycotted, and León Garcia went back underground as quick as she had emerged. She never captained a tie. And it further confirmed the players’ notion that they didn’t know her, she didn’t know them, and furthermore had little interest in even getting to know them.

That’s when Martinez came on board.

After that, federation president José Luis Escañuela and vice-president Olvido Aguilera got into some hot water over some alleged major financial irregularities including – most amusingly – some 12,000 Euros spent on candy.

Escañuela was suspended, then resigned. 

New president promises transparency

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The top Spanish players, Martinez, and the new federation president all look like one big happy family here, don’t they? (Photo: RFET)

The new president, Miguel Díaz Román, was elected a year later and promised change and transparency.

It wasn’t exactly a study of democracy in action, even if the voter turnout was nearly 97 per cent. The two other candidates withdrew just before the start of the meeting. The final tally was 123 votes for Díaz Román, 46 blank votes, and four spoiled ballots.

“We are going to unite tennis in Spain, we are going to work together to make the Spanish Tennis Federation a benchmark at the global level,” Díaz Román said upon being elected

Martinez
Former Fed Cup captain proudly poses with new Wimbledon champion Garbiñe Muguruza at the champions’ dinner this year. In the absence of Sam Sumyk, Martinez was a chill and supportive presence as Muguruza took her first steps towards becoming the WTA’s new No. 1

The first thing Díaz Román did was to shuffle León Garcia out of the federation completely. He promised to restore the federation to its former glory.

But barely a year after taking office, he presided over a move that cannot sit well with the new No. 1 in the WTA Tour rankings, Garbiñe Muguruza.

Muguruza called upon Martinez to take over the coaching when regular coach Sam Sumyk had to miss Wimbledon due to the birth of his first child.

She won the tournament. And it was clear that experience and chill of Martinez contributed greatly to that effort.

Davis Cup in disarray

As for Davis Cup, players like Roberto Bautista-Agut and Pablo Carreño Busta took part in 2017. But Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer and others took a pass.

The next Davis Cup tie will take place right after the Australian Open in early February (the draw will be made next week in London).

It will be fascinating to see who will be captaining. And even more fascinating to see which players will play.

Spain currently has the world No. 1 male player in Nadal, and the world No. 1 female player in Muguruza. You can’t ask for more in terms of spreading the gospel of the game in your country.

It defies the imagination as to why they would want to rock the boat in such a major way, right.

Update

A piece in El Español posits a few candidates. And it indicates that ever since the French Open, the new board had decided Martinez was a (three-year) interim solution. But it wasn’t a long-term one. 

For the Davis Cup, it seems like the same old, same old (former male player with a Slam on his resumé). For the women, a couple of former players whose main success came in doubles are on the list. As well – and we wonder about their thinking here – the former (male) coach of one of the mainstays of the Fed Cup team, Carla Suárez Navarro. Former coach. There’s a reason. 

One interesting thing the board reportedly thought Martinez was lacking was “the ability to manage with a clear message to the group.” If that’s the case, the suits continue to fail to understand what the 21st century player is all about. And this is especially true on the men’s side, where the majority of the players are higher-ranked.

Those players play Davis Cup out of duty, not for the money. Because it’s an intrusion, in a sense, to the dynamics of their day job. The recent rash of injuries at the top of the game tell you most top players want to play less, not more.

The Davis Cup participants are not a team all season long. But when they show up, they give their all. They don’t need motivation – just making time for it in their schedule shows they’re plenty motivated. And they don’t need “a clear message”. They’re not children to be controlled.

Muguruza soars to first Wimbledon title

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WIMBLEDON – The women’s singles final was turning out to be everything you could hope for.

Then – suddenly, unexpectedly – it wasn’t.

It was a rout.

And 23-year-old Garbiñe Muguruza earned her first Wimbledon title, her second Grand Slam title, going away.

For the Spaniard, they may be many more. But on the other side of the net, 37-year-old Venus Williams may look back with regret the opportunity lost.

It was her best opportunity during a nine-year Grand Slam drought to hold up the big trophy once more.

And for reasons that may only ever be truly known to those close to her, she crumbled.

Early promise unfulfilled

Until 4-5 in the first set the final was a battle of shaky forehands at times. But the errors were interspersed with some baseline exchanges of breathtaking quality. It was a heavyweight battle of championship caliber.

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Williams, alone with her thoughts for a brief moment during the trophy ceremony.

Williams had two set points, 15-40 at 4-5 on Muguruza’s serve.

A forehand into the net. A missed service return. Muguruza managed to hold.

Williams never won another game in the 7-5, 6-0 defeat.

The American’s forehand deserted her in the next game and as doubt settled into the mind, and the cumulative physical effort of six previous matches settled into her legs, her younger opponent’s championship mettle took over.

At 6-5, 30-15 as Muguruza served out the first set, Williams’s nerve failed her.

A great defensive retrieval by Muguruza went high in the air, heading for the corner of the court.

It was nowhere being an automatic out. But Williams’ feet didn’t move. It was a “Oh, please, let that ball be out” moment.

Except it wasn’t. And when it took a sideways hop off the court, it was too late for Williams to recover. One point later, the first set went to Muguruza.

“Yeah, I went out there and maybe I was too aggressive, you know, too hungry to win the point. I was missing few shots maybe too early. But they were long, so I was not that worried because I knew that eventually they were going to go inside maybe deep. So with the match and feeling more comfortable, feeling more in the court, they were getting in,” Muguruza said. “I thought it was just a matter of time, of going through the first nerves of the match, then that’s it.”

Was that the moment Venus, in her own mind, knew it was over?

Second-set disaster

A match is never over until the handshake. But as the second set began, Williams was pressing.

She double-faulted into the net – her service motion collapsing down as it has done, at times, in key moments during her career.

At 0-2, Williams threw all caution to the wind, but not necessarily in a good way.

Muguruza had come to the net more than Williams in the first set, mirroring their forward-thinking efforts through the fortnight.

But now, Williams was doing it out of desperation, illogically, foolheartedly.

Had the legs run out of steam in her seventh match in less than two weeks?

Perhaps.

Was she panicking as she saw this golden opportunity to hold up the namesake Venus Rosewater dish above her head one last time slip away?

Even for a time-tested veteran of so many tennis battles, that possibility can’t be discounted.

Williams was behind the baseline on some of those attempts, which seemed to be more a matter of bailing out of rallies than being aggressive in a positive way. At times, she didn’t even get near the service line on the way up, making the passing shots elementary. On one butchered volley, facing yet another break point, the feet never got sorted and the miss was monumental.

The message it sent to her opponent was resounding.

Muguruza stays the course

And Muguruza, to her great credit, kept doing exactly what she had been doing. She hit hard, she missed rarely. As she said after the victory, she might have been nervous, but she was composed.

When the Spaniard faced break points, the speed on her strokes went up a measured five miles an hour.

By the time it was 5-0, and Muguruza was serving for the title, Williams had surrendered.

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Two years after her first appearance in the final, Muguruza gets her name etched on the trophy. (Wimbledon.com)

It’s an astonishing thing to see a grand champion just give up on such a big occasion. Even if the mountain to climb seems insurmountable, tennis’s scoring system allows a player to come back even if they’re just a single point away from losing the match.

She barely moved in that final game.

When it was over, the reaction of the crowd was eerily quiet. It was the quietest moment of the entire match, which was played under the Centre Court roof because of some misty weather outside.

When the roof is closed, every sound inside is amplified. The ball sounds like it’s hit harder. The grunts from both players sound louder, and the applause is in stereophonic sound.

But the combination of the match ending on a line-call challenge, and the disappearance of the five-time champion in its latter half left the crowd stunned. Even the perfect acoustics couldn’t up the volume to where it should have been, to the level Muguruza deserved for her big moment.

Maximizing Muguruza

At 23, she now has four career titles. Just four. And two of them are Grand Slam titles.

Since the beginning of 2016, in 33 tournaments, Muguruza has made just two finals. Both were Grand Slam finals. And she won both of them.

“It is very hard to find, like, a recipe to feel good fitness-wise, (tennis-wise), mentally. I think in this tournament I put everything together, which is very hard,” Muguruza said. “Normally, you know, you’re tired, I feel pain here, my confidence is not there. So I felt this tournament I find somehow, you know, to put everything together and perform good at every level.”

Williams was highly gracious afterwards, as she has never failed to be no matter what.

Whatever emotions she may be feeling, whatever was preventing her from showing her best in the second set, she was keeping deep inside her.

As she did the on-court interview with former player Sue Barker, Williams said the right things. But her voice lacked conviction – until she looked into the camera and spoke to sister Serena, at home awaiting the birth of her first child.

“I tried my best to do the same you do,” Williams said. “But I think there will be other opportunities. I do!” With an arch grin, Williams was off.

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Muguruza gets a nice hug from an always-gracious five-time champion

Close to the vest

There was no further elaboration in her post-match media conference. There rarely is, with Williams. She keeps it private, nearly always. If there’s any conclusion tobe drawn, it’s that her answers were even shorter and less revealing than usual. 

Asked about the seismic shift between the first and second sets and whether she was fatigued, she said this:

“Yeah, there’s errors, and you can’t make them. You can’t make them. I went for some big shots and they didn’t land. Probably have to make less errors.”

Asked again if she was also feeling a little tired, she didn’t respond.

“Yeah, I think she played amazing. She played amazing,”

So that’s that.

Two years ago, when Serena defeated Muguruza in the final on the same court and Muguruza couldn’t hold back the tears, the 23-time Grand Slam champion had a feeling.

It took two years, and it took a crushing win over her big sister, but Serena was right.

 

Wimbledon Day 12 – Ladies’ final day

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WIMBLEDON – If, on the day of the women’s single draw, someone told you Venus Williams vs. Garbiñe Muguruza was going to be the ladies’ singles final, would you have laughed?

Or would you have been intrigued by the journey?

Williams, 37, has enough of a track record this yea  with the Australian Open final that her being there on the final day was not completely out of the realm of possibility.

Especially on grass. And especially at Wimbledon.

Had sister Serena been here, the scenario would have been quite different – not only for Venus, but for the rest of the field. 

Mowing down the youngsters

Presuming Williams didn’t have one of those days she can have because of the Sjogren’s disease, where she wakes up and just has no energy, there was no one in her way she couldn’t overcome to get here.

She faced a series of three hard-hitting youngsters, all born in 1997, and handled them all in straight sets. Not easily – the lack of fear from the new generation is as potent a weapon as a big forehand – but with consistency.

In Johanna Konta, she faced a woman who carried a country of tennis fans on her back. Konta also had been through the wringer during this tournament, surviving Caroline Garcia and No. 2 seed Simona Halep and, most dramatically, 21-year-old Donna Vekic in the second round.

Konta won that one 10-8 in the third set. And with that, her first trip past the second round at her Home Slam, she was on her way. But against the five-time champion Williams, she just didn’t have enough.

Nine-year drought

And so Williams will be in search of a sixth Wimbledon title. It would be her first since 2008, when she defeated her sister here.

The presence of the woman is such that her stature in the game goes far beyond what she has actually accomplished over the last 15 years. Her career had come in two waves: before sister Serena surpassed her, and afterwards.

Williams has not won Wimbledon in nine years. And other than Wimbledon, she has not won a Grand Slam title since she defeated her sister in the 2001 US Open final.

It was an event held on a Saturday night for the first time. And the schedule change came, in large part, because the two sisters were expected to be fighting it out for major titles for the next decade.

Now, in Williams’ tennis dotage, she is adding a third wave. And perhaps it might be the best wave of all.

“I don’t think about my age. I know I have a lot to give, still. I don’t feel any particular age. So it’s not a factor,” Williams said. “I’m still in love with this part of my life, and I don’t want it to end.”

It has never seemed as crucial to Williams to be the best, to win it all, as it always has to her sister. She never, outwardly at least, carried the same fierce ambition. But the determination must have always burned inside of her. If it didn’t, she wouldn’t be here on this day, ready to make some history.

For Muguruza, a second title awaits

Meanwhile, her opponent is just getting started.

Muguruza’s problem, in this matchup, is that everything she does well, Williams does better on a good day. And Williams does a few more things that Muguruza doesn’t do.

Is it a (relatively) easier task than it was two years ago, when Muguruza made her first major final but had Serena Williams in front of her? Probably. But that doesn’t make it easy.

Most impressive about Muguruza in defeat in 2015 was that despite the mismatch in experience, she was hardly overwhelmed. She competed well, and she made it close.

“I just remember that everything went very quickly. I didn’t realize it. And suddenly I was in the trophy ceremony,” Muguruza told the BBC. “I’m going to take my time and really breathe out there, and enjoy, also. Because it’s very fast.”

 

Venus Williams is a different challenge.

Back in 2013, when Muguruza was still a teenager, Williams pulled out a victory 7-5 in the third at a small WTA Tour event in Brazil.

More recently, in the quarterfinals of Rome this year, on clay, Muguruza was the winner in three sets. It was the kind of match that signalled the Spaniard was coming out of the torpor that can affect first-time Grand Slam champions.

After winning the French Open in 2016, Muguruza had struggled with injury, with expectations, with pressure self-imposed and from the outside. Once the French Open was over this year, and the weight of defending that title (she didn’t) was off her shoulders, Muguruza is showing some of her best tennis again.

But Venus Williams isn’t Magdalena Rybarikova, the Slovak Muguruza defeated in the semifinals Wednesday.

With Rybarikova, Muguruza was able to get to the net first in many instances. But she had more opportunity to do so against an opponent a little frozen by nerves, and one who doesn’t hit the ball nearly as hard.

Against Williams, that will prove a far more difficult task. Surprisingly, Muguruza has come to the net more during this Wimbledon than Williams has.

Part of that was that Williams played a series of those young ball bashers, and the opportunities were harder to carve out. But how much each will move forward in this final will be a fascinating dynamic to watch.

In the end, it seems the two will have to mostly slug it out from the baseline. 

Whoever slugs best on the day will emerge the winner.

Muguruza received a surprising amount of support from the crowd when she played Serena two years ago.

This time around, Williams is obviously the popular choice. As with Roger Federer on the men’s side, advancing age brings sentimental support.

There are never any guarantees that any Grand Slam champion will win another one. But in their mid-30s and beyond, the opportunities to do so are cherished all the more by the players and fans alike.

Muguruza will be up against that. She also will be up against a public that, in large part, doesn’t think there is any other tournament all season long besides Wimbledon.

Williams has won “their” tournament five times. She is therefore “theirs”. Muguruza is going to try to become one of theirs on Sunday.

Experience wins out as Venus, Muguruza make Wimbledon final

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WIMBLEDON – So often in sports, Cinderella stories can end before the clock actually strikes midnight.

The fairy-tale finish line sometimes is a little ahead of the actual one.

The more experienced, like Venus Williams and Garbiñe Muguruza in the Wimbledon semi-finals, have a more developed sense of pacing. They know, because they’ve done it before, where the true finish line is and have a better sense of direction about getting there.

That real finish line at Wimbledon is on Saturday. And the player who crosses it first will be holding up the Venus Rosewater Dish on famed Centre Court.

Venus will try for No. 6, at 37

At 37, Williams is writing a final chapter to her 20-year tennis career that is quickly becoming even more of a page turner than the many compelling chapters that came before.

Her 6-4, 6-2 win over No. 6-seeded Brit Johanna Konta Thursday was a master class in consistency and focus from a player whose technical flaws haven’t always allowed her that luxury. She’s been there, if not for many years. She’s done that. And she knew what to do.

For Konta, who didn’t play poorly but who didn’t play well enough, it was the best Wimbledon of her career by far. And it certainly offered hope that Great Britain can one day have a matched set: a modern women’s champion to go with modern men’s champion Andy Murray.

“She dictated the match from the very first ball till the very last one. I think she just showed her true qualities and why she’s a five-time champion here, just a true champion that she is,” Konta said. “It was very difficult for me to get a good foothold in the match. The few opportunities that I did get, she did incredibly well to take them away from me. I don’t think I did too much wrong out there. I think it was all credit to her.”

Forehand battle

The difference came with the forehands. For both, it’s the weaker side. But Williams wouldn’t allow it to be a weakness on Thursday. Instead, she went about breaking down that side in her opponent.

Konta has improved the shot, to be sure. And in doing so she has brought herself into the top 10. But the ghosts of the older, poorer technique tend to appear like unwelcome weekend guests in extreme moments.

That’s true not just of Konta, but of any less-experienced competitor vying to achieve beyond what they’ve done before, against an opponent who has already done it.

Williams had a huge part in making that happen.

And after Konta had break points to go up 5-3 and serve for the first set – and didn’t make them – it was all but over. When your opponent is down break point, down to a second serve – and fires it in at 106 mph – you have to know you’re in for a tough day.

Muguruza to second Wimbledon final

Earlier, Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza ended the self-title “fairy tale” of 28-year-old Magdalena Rybarikova with an efficient 6-1, 6-1, dismantling. It took just 65 minutes and sent a loud message to the rest of the WTA Tour: I was lost, but now I’m found.

There was no doubt Rybarikova froze in the biggest moment of her career. Who wouldn’t, really? The Slovak might have dreamed of some day making the semifinals of Wimbledon. But after the year she has been through, with two surgeries and a long fight back up the rankings at the lowest levels of tennis, who knew it would be this year?

“Because she was the favorite, she had the pressure, she’s supposed to win this match. She handled it absolutely amazing. But I just wanted to play good match. I just wanted the crowd to enjoy that. I don’t think so they did because was very fast match,” Rybarikova said. “Even we had some very good rallies, but I was, like, sometimes I could not believe. Sometimes I really was great, and she played even better.”

Absent was the free-swinging, serene, grass-court craftswoman who upset soon-to-be No. 1 Karolina Pliskova earlier in the tournament. But such are the twists and turns of Cinderella stories. They tend to finish before the end – Jelena Ostapenko at the French Open being a notable exception.

Rybarikova admitted she was nervous, that her legs were a little weary, and that she didn’t handle the big occasion the way she would have liked. Mostly, though, there was too much Muguruza to counter.

The logic is that even if Rybarikova went no further, she could still close the book on a spectacular tournament. For Muguruza, who has played on the final Saturday here and has hoisted up the champion’s trophy at Roland Garros, the story needed to continue.

Muguruza find old self

Muguruza’s renaissance this Wimbledon has been somewhat unexpected, and throughly impressive. The reasons for it can only be speculative. But the one big difference for her this fortnight has been the presence of countrywoman Conchita Martinez at her side.

“I think she’s helping me to deal with the stress of the tournament, because it’s a long tournament. I’ve been here already since a while. … So she just knows, you know, how to prepare, how to train, what to do,” Muguruza said. “Not that I’m doing something different, honestly. But, you know, to have her by my side gives me also this little confidence on having someone that has won before.”

Spanish combo clicking

Martinez, who is both the Davis Cup and Fed Cup captain for Spain, won Wimbledon in 1994 and looks to be the chill to Muguruza’s ice. 

Muguruza’s regular coach, Frenchman Sam Sumyk, is not here as he returned to California to await the birth of his first child with wife Meilen Tu, a former player and currently a player agent.  Their frosty relationship has played out in public many times. Under his guidance, Muguruza won the 2016 French Open. But she hasn’t won a tournament since. She has not even made a final.

She said Sumyk is in regular contact.

“Conchita and Sam are really working together. Before I do something, they both decided. So it’s not that that magic is not happening. I think I’m here because I’ve been working not only the last few days, but longer time, getting ready for this kind of moment,” she said. “I think a lot of things are clicking also with her and the team this week, so it’s very nice.”

There have been some inexplicable early losses, including a 6-1, 6-0 loss to Barbora Strycova in Muguruza’s first match at Eastbourne the week before Wimbledon. But there have been recent glimmers of hope, including a three-set win over Venus Williams in Rome.

The player who destroyed Rybarikova Thursday was the old, aggressive, take-no-prisoners Muguruza. She took the net away from her more forward-thinking opponent by taking it over herself, It was welcome shift in tactics in the tournament, bringing back an element that had disappeared in recent months in tandem with Muguruza’s decision to forego doubles.

Been there, done that

When it comes to Saturday’s final, Martinez can be of significant help once again to her younger charge. She has not only been there; she has been almost exactly there. And she did that.

When Martinez won Wimbledon in 1994, she defeated a player who remains the oldest woman to reach a Grand Slam final in the Open era in Martina Navratilova.

Navratilova was a Wimbledon legend; Martinez was the Spanish outsider, although an accomplished one given she was the No. 3 seed. 

Martinez was 22 then; Muguruza is 23. Williams is 206 days younger than Navratilova was in that 1994 final.

Will history repeat? Or will Williams add another major title to her resumé, her first in nine years?

If she does, at her age, it will be a victory for the ages.

“There were definitely some issues. I had a lot of issues. This year has been amazing in terms of my play, playing deep into the big events actually. Of course, I’m excited about being again in another final. Try to take it a step further,” Williams said. “There’s still a lot to be done. I have one more match that I’d like to, you know, be the winner of. I have to go out there and take it and play well. But I like to take courage in the fact that I’ve been playing well this tournament and this year, and all these moments have led to this.”

Mladenovic – and crowd – beat Muguruza

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ROLAND GARROS – Reigning French Open champion Garbiñe Muguruza kept insisting she wasn’t overly concerned about defending her title. Roland Garros was just another tournament. No big deal, bla bla bla.

No one really believed her. It may well be, in the end, she had trouble even convincing herself.

Muguruza was shuffled out of this year’s tournament Sunday both by No. 13 seed Kristina Mladenovic – and by 10,000 French supporters in a full-to-bursting Court Suzanne Lenglen.

How much of it was Mladenovic, who is having a great spring, and how much was the crowd in the 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 loss?

Hard to measure. In all likelihood, it was a combination of both, plus the occasion. The pressure that had visibly accumulated all season long finally reached a breaking point.

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The French fans are never easy, especially when one of their own is playing. The Lenglen faithful were tough on Muguruza, who left the court wagging her index finger and shaking her head, “No, no,” at some fans.

They might have wanted her autograph, or a wristband. But since it was likely they had just spent the last two hours vociferously cheering her every mistake, that wasn’t going to happen.

A little more respect, please

“I just think that they were a little bit, sometimes should be a little bit more respectful. Even (during) the game, because we had to, you know, stop. The chair umpire has to always calm the crowd down,” Muguruza said afterwards. “I’m not here to create enemies. I mean, I love playing here.

“It’s not a good feeling.”

The 23-year-old Spaniard did her best to keep her cool on the court. But as the match went on, she became increasingly agitated.

She probably even felt as though the ballkids were conspiring to take their sweet time fetching her towel, because she started to bark at them.

defending

In the end, despite some positive work during this tournament, some tough wins against good opponents that turned around her season to some extent, she didn’t make the second week.

“I obviously was a little bit nervous. Through the match I was getting more and more. Also because the feeling (the crowd effect). So it’s true that I couldn’t really find my game, but I don’t think I did really (anything) wrong out there. You know, I just think it went to her side, and that’s all,” Muguruza said.

Overcome with emotion

After a few questions during her press conference, all the emotions she had been holding back just sort of hit like a small wave.  Visibly distraught, Muguruza left the interview room.

To her credit, she returned in short order. And she was even able to drop a bit of snark in answering the question that was being asked before she left. It was about whether she heard Mladenovic yelling out “Fuerza!!!” after some of Muguruza’s errors. Or it might have been “Forza!!”. Mladenovic has many options.

Mladenovic has been known to do that – shout out things like that in her opponent’s language. Muguruza said she didn’t hear it. “I think she speaks, like, 25 languages, I heard, so… ”

Zing. 

So tough to defend

The Spaniard is a bit of a difficult player to get behind, partly because she doesn’t give you much. So many of her on-court emotions are negative ones – especially this season. Her consults with coach Sam Sumyk during the regular WTA Tour matches are uncomfortable to watch. In her interviews, she’s preternaturally composed. She speaks deliberately (and very well) in English, but without inflection. 

But this one was a tough one. It’s a tough way to go about endearing yourself to people but on some level, it humanized her. Unless you’re a diehard French tennis fan, it was impossible not to feel for the position she was in.

Yes, a professional athlete should be able to just shut all that out. But they’re human. Afterwards, she was open and honest and vulnerable about just how challenging this first Grand Slam title defense was.

Muguruza had been expecting to play on the big court Sunday, Court Philippe-Chatrier. That was understandable given she’s the reigning champion, and her opponent is the No. 1 Frenchwoman.

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It all seemed so easy a year ago with Garbiñe Muguruza won the French Open. The last 12 months have been much tougher. (FFT/Corinne Dubreuil)

The schedulers threw her a deliberate curve, no doubt about it.

Court Suzanne-Lenglen is a lovely court. But it’s more intimate than the main stadium. And because it doesn’t have as many corporate loges – all those expensive, but too-often empty seats you’ll see for many of the matches there – there was going to be a whole lot more noise and a whole lot more atmosphere. 

It all played right into Mladenovic’s hands perfectly. The No. 1 Frenchwoman loves a crowd. And she especially loves a crowd that is unanimously cheering for her.

“I love this tournament no matter what happens. I’m going to be super happy to come back. I think it’s just – it’s gonna sound weird, but I’m actually happy that this stage of the year is done. … I think I’m going to feel much better now to continue the year, and everybody is going to stop bothering me, asking me about this tournament, so it’s going to be a little bit like, ‘Whew, let’s keep going’,” Muguruza said.

Muguruza’s ranking is going to take a hit. She’s likely to drop from No. 5 down to No. 14, with the 2,000 ranking points from a Grand Slam title coming off, and only some of them earned back with the fourth-round appearance.

“It’s such an important tournament for me. I’m sure it’s going to hurt. More than other tournaments,” said Muguruza. “But as I said, I’m quite pleased with my result. I’m not going to be too dramatic about this. I just had a very tough opponent today.”

Well, about 10,000 rough opponents. But who was counting?

The calm after the storm with Team Muguruza pays off with a win

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KEY BISCAYNE – Things were a little touch-and-go on Team Muguruza during her second-round match against Christina Mchale. Coach Sam Sumyk appeared to opt not to come down to the court when his charge called upon him after the second set, and then gave her the what-for when he did take the court later. And there tears.

The atmosphere wasn’t warm and fuzzy during the last 20 minutes of Garbiñe Muguruza’s warmup for her third-round match against Shuai Zhang Saturday. You could, well, feel the tension.

These two are not all that chatty at the best of times. But this certainly felt a level above that.

Here are some moments.

The two didn’t exchange one word; Muguruza did bark something at coach Sam Sumyk at one point as she practiced her serve, but that was it. They may not even have gotten closer than 10 feet to each other the entire time. When it was over, she smiled and shook her hitting partner’s hand (generally on Tour, everyone shakes everyone’s hand after these practices and when there is another player involved, that’s a lot of handshakes).

Sumyk didn’t get a handshake; she packed her gear, nodded hello to a member of Agnieszka Radwanska’s team (they took over the court after Muguruza’s time was up), and walked off with the hitting partner leaving Sumyk to pick up the stray tennis balls.

She signed two or three autographs for the big crowd of fans gathered to wait for Rafael Nadal on the adjacent court. And then she was on her way.

Muguruza dropped the first set against Zhang, double-faulting on set point. But she gathered herself and pulled it out in three sets to win 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 and reach the fourth round. Sumyk came out twice during the match – without drama.

“The first set was few points difference honestly. Then in the second set I came stronger. I said, ‘Look, if yesterday I could come back, I can today as well.’ So I just keep my spirit up. I try to be more aggressive. I try to, I don’t know, be more positive; stop looking the negative things of losing the first set. Then everything went more like the – with more flow I think,” Muguruza said afterwards.

A date with either No. 12 seed Caroline Wozniacki or Romania’s Sorana Cirstea awaits.

Some highlights:

Clearly all has not been well for awhile in Garbiñeland; she’s taken some bad losses, is nursing an ongoing ankle situation, and the relationship with Sumyk hardly seems warm and fuzzy.

But she’s doing a better job of fighting this week. And she’s going to need to build some momentum coming into the defence of her first Grand Slam title at Roland Garros in just two months.

“I’m just going through these situations with the best attitude possible, being humble, trying to accept it, and find my way,” she said.

The 2,000 ranking points Muguruza earned for winning the 2016 French Open will come off her scoresheet. They represent more than 40 per cent of her total. While a first-round loss there this year would only mean a loss of about 10 spots in the rankings – for now – it would take a lot of great results at smaller events to earn those points back.

With this fourth-round effort in Miami, she matches her result from a year ago when she lost in that round to Victoria Azarenka. At least, she can only gain ground from here, not lose any.