Melbourne | Muguruza mugs Halep to reach final
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While it is not the line-up most expected for the women’s final in Melbourne, unseeded Garbiñe Muguruza’s belief was rewarded with a gruelling win over Simona Halep, the World No 3, on Thursday as she booked her spot to meet Sofia Kenin on Saturday.
Definitely the mission is to get away from here with a big trophy. Big or small celebration, it’s incredible achievement. It really depends of how you’re feeling. I believe in myself that I have what it takes to play these kind of matches and to be in this stage. Garbiñe Muguruza
Kenin had upset top seed Ash Barty earlier in the day, much to the disappointment of home fans, but the progress of Muguruza, already a 2-time Grand Slam champion, was only surprising because the Spaniard suffered a dip in form that she has only just recovered.
Entering the tournament, neither was considered anywhere near a favourite, with Kenin’s odds listed at 40-1, and Muguruza at 35-1.
The almost-inevitable final clash between Barty and Halep was not to be, but, instead, there is an exciting climax to be anticipated as the 21-year old American takes on the former World No 1 from Spain.
Muguruza had been all but counted out due to her disappointing results over the past two seasons.
After winning the French Open in 2016 and Wimbledon in 2017, as well as taking over the No 1 ranking later that year, the expectations couldn’t have been higher for her, but she never made it to back to a Grand Slam final, until now.
She advanced to the semi-finals at Roland Garros in 2018, but then never made it past the 4th round of a major, eliminated in the 1st round at both Wimbledon and the US Open in 2019.
Her ranking fell to No 36 to end the year, her lowest since 2014, and she spent the beginning of her offseason climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, something she said that helped clear her head and provide an escape from tennis, before reuniting with her former coach Conchita Martinez.
The 5 weeks training they did in San Diego leading into the new year has been paying dividends as the 26-year-old opened 2020 with a semi-final appearance in Shenzhen and followed up by making the quarter-finals in Hobart before having to withdraw due to a viral illness.
Still, despite her recent success, her run in Melbourne has been a surprise to many.
She has thrived on her underdog status, needing 3 sets in her opening 2 matches, but has become more dominant and in control as the tournament went on, beating two top-10 players, Kiki Bertens and Elina Svitolina, during her march to the semis.
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When she took to the court against Halep at Rod Laver Arena, in even hotter heat following Kenin’s win, she look unfazed.
In a battle between two-time Grand Slam champions and former World No 1 players, Muguruza continued her return to her peak form with a 7-6(8) 7-5 semi-final upset of Halep to advance to her fourth Grand Slam final of her career, and her first at the Australian Open.
“Definitely the mission is to get away from here with a big trophy,” Muguruza told the media in her post-match press conference. “Big or small celebration, it’s incredible achievement.
“It really depends of how you’re feeling. I believe in myself that I have what it takes to play these kind of matches and to be in this stage.”
Muguruza led the head-to-head with Halep 3-2 coming into their semi-final clash, with a pristine 3-0 record against the Romanian on hard courts.
As temperatures touched 38C/100F, it was Muguruza who once again came through on the surface, gritting out two gruelling sets after just over 2 hours of play.
“I had a tough opponent,” said Muguruza. “I knew it was going to be a tough semi-final against Simona.
“She’s a very good player. Every time we played, it was very physical, long matches. I knew it was going to be a very hot day.”
Muguruza powered her way to the tight two-set victory over Halep, the 2018 Roland Garros and reigning Wimbledon champion, striking 39 winners, including 10 well-timed aces, to Halep’s 20.
Moreover, the Spaniard often used the tactic of rushing the net, and it paid off two-thirds of the 30 times she charged into the forecourt.
“It’s tough to say really what’s the little difference,” Muguruza stated. “I guess maybe structuring better the points, using more my weapons.
“It’s literally, like, a half-second or one shot the difference. It’s very delicate. It’s also a lot about confidence, the way you’re playing. Yeah, just a mix of that.”
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Muguruza will attempt to win her 3rd major title against No 14 seed Sofia Kenin of the United States.
“I think [Kenin is] playing great,” said Muguruza. “I think since a while she’s just progressing up in the rankings and in the results.
“So I think she deserves to be in the final with the tennis she has been showing.”
Muguruza lost her only prior meeting with Kenin, which came in Beijing last year, and the Spaniard admitted: “It wasn’t a very good match from my side. I think she played good. It was the first time we played, so it was good to have that match as a reference.
“I mean, it’s going to be a hard match. It’s the final of a Grand Slam. Doesn’t matter who is your opponent.”
For Kenin, it is the culmination of years of hard work.
”I’m not shocked,” she Kenin. “It’s a dream come true for me. I’ve always dreamed about this. Of course, I believed in myself.
“I was playing, I knew I was in the semi-final. It was just great.
“I’m so happy I was able to share the court with Ash. Yeah, after the match, of course it’s pretty emotional. It’s the finals. It’s something different, it’s surreal. [I’m] so grateful for it.”
As for Halep, who will return to World No 2 after the event, she told the press, after the match: “To lose like this hurts more, definitely. I’m in pain now, I have to admit. But life is going on.
“I think maybe I could be a little bit more brave in the points that were important.
“I didn’t do that. Maybe I went a little bit defensive in those balls and I couldn’t take the domination of the point.”
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Every point was hard fought, and both players continued to find answers for one another throughout the slugfest, but it was Muguruza who managed to hold on.
Needing a tiebreak to close out the first set in the sweltering late afternoon sun, and finding herself trailing in the second, she eked out the victory in 2 hours and 5 minutes.
With Muguruza rushing the net and Halep grinding out groundstrokes in the early going, both players were in top form, each saving 2 break points as they hustled to 3-3.
Muguruza, though, took the early advantage in the opening frame, firing forehand winners to hold for 4-3, then earning the first break of the day with a backhand winner to go up 5-3.
With her back against the wall, Halep stormed back, holding to love to stay within touching distance at 5-4, then coming out on top in rallies to break Muguruza at love for 5-5.
After a quick hold for 6-5, Halep was back in front, having won 12 of the last 13 points.
The Romanian’s momentum continued in the following game as great depth of shot garnered her two set points, but Muguruza slammed an ace to save the first, then outhit Halep during a stirring rally to erase the second.
The first set headed into the tiebreak and Muguruza wasted no time in going up 3-0.
Halep responded by taking the next 4 points but it was Muguruza who got 2 set points, thanks to a service winner that gave her a 6-4 lead.
The first one slipped away and Halep pulled off a stunning forehand winner that painted the sideline to save the second.
Muguruza found her serve once again to save a 3rd set point, but gifted Halep a 4th with a double fault moments later.
A brutal exchange of 20 shots ended with Halep sending a forehand wide and the Romanian could not hide her frustration, angrily reacting towards her box.
Muguruza took the opportunity to create a 3rd set point for herself and this time, the Spaniard did not falter, closing out the set on the 67-minute mark.
It was the first set Halep lost all tournament.
“You didn’t know who was going to win that first set,” said Muguruza. “The first set was very long, so I knew it was going to be key to the match because of the circumstances and the weather and everything.
“Just hang in there and whoever was going to be stronger was going to get it. I was happy that I stay solid there, took my chances at the end.”
Halep twice went up an early break in the second set, and after consolidating for 4-2, the 4th seed was edging ever closer to forcing a decider.
The Muguruza serve was clicking, though, which helped her erase many of Halep’s chances.
With Halep serving for the set at 5-4, the Spaniard took her shot, converting her 4th break point of the game after a series of strong groundstrokes.
“[Muguruza] served very well in the important moments,” Halep stated. “My return was not great today. I think it was a good match for both of us, but she was stronger in the end.
“In the important moments she played a little bit more braver.”
Now level at 5-5, Muguruza used outstanding foot speed to take the edge in rallies, and after a quick hold for 6-5, the unseeded player crunched returns to pull ahead in Halep’s next service game.
At that juncture, a Halep drop-shot was returned with a winning Muguruza drop-shot to set up double match point, and on the second one, another Muguruza dropper forced an error to seal victory.
She clenched her fist after the last points, as Martinez and the rest of her box jumped out of their seats in elation.
“I wasn’t thinking I was down,” she said right after the match. “I was thinking, ‘Keep going, at some point you’re going to have your opportunity.’
“I know I was facing Simona so I knew it was going to be a hard match. I was just hanging in there with all the energy I had.”
Muguruza became the first Spanish woman to reach a hard-court final since Martinez in 1998, and now looks to become the first unseeded champion at the Australian Open since Serena Williams in 2007.
She insists she has enjoyed flying somewhat under the radar and not being in the spotlight as much.
She has only allowed herself to think about her next match, and not beyond, throughout the tournament, and the mindset has finally paid off.
“You don’t think like that [being in the final at the start of the event], that’s two weeks ago,” she said. “You go day by day, you take each match as it comes. Now I have one final match on Saturday.”
In a final matchup few predicted, both Muguruza and Kenin could not be more excited as it marks the return for the former and the realisation of a dream for the other.
After Thursday’s heat, they will both need to some time to rest and focus on one of the biggest matches of their careers.
“Luckily I have 48 hours to recover and get ready for the last match,” said Muguruza. “We train all our career to play on this court and [in front of] this crowd.”
Muguruza claims she won’t do anything differently over the next two days, and will simply do as exactly she’s done throughout the fortnight.
“There’s no point to change anything now,” she smiled.