Garbiñe Muguruza signalled her return to the top of the game by winning the Akron WTA Finals in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Wednesday night, when she emphatically beat Anett Kontaveit for the second time in a week, 6-3 7-5, to hoist the Billie Jean King Cup aloft and pocket $1,570,000 in prize money.
Right now I feel extremely happy and relieved because it's a tournament that I've struggled at the beginning, then I managed to play well. I think I'm staying composed a little bit now because it means really a lot to me to win such a big, big, big tournament, the [WTA Finals] in Latin America, here in Mexico. I think it's just perfect. I'm just very happy I proved to myself once again I can be the best, I can be the maestra, like how we say in Spanish. Garbiñe Muguruza
Kontaveit was the final player to book her place in the WTA Finals and, from the outset, looked primed to continue her remarkable hard-court run, during which she had won the Kremlin Cup and Transylvania Open, by beating both Barbora Krejcikova and Karolina Pliskova in the group round robin stage before being stopped by Muguruza.
Along with Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur, she finishes with a tour-high 48 victories this year and was broken only 4 times in 4 matches coming into the final, but Muguruza chilled her hot streak by scoring 5 breaks against her on Wednesday night.
Muguruza, seeded 6th in Guadalajara, has also had a fine season, winning Chicago last month and defeating Krejcikova in March’s Dubai WTA 1000 final for her biggest title since picking up her second major title at Wimbledon in 2017.
Her win on Wednesday is her 10th career title and the two-time Grand Slam champion is set to rise now to World No 3 in the upcoming season-ending rankings, which will be Muguruza’s best year-end ranking since she finished 2017 ranked World No 2.
Kontaveit, for her efforts, is projected to hit a new career-high ranking of World No 7.
“I think it’s a very good season overall,” Muguruza said afterwards. “Won three titles. I think it’s the year that I’ve won the most titles and made finals also. I felt like a very stable year with myself also.
“Of course, there is a little ups and downs, injuries and stuff. Overall I think it’s the best year for me.
“I might not have won a Grand Slam, but I deeply feel like I’ve been happier and more stable, less dramatic, and in general very happy about it.”
After trading breaks early in the match, Muguruza chipped away at Kontaveit’s defences to convert on break point in the 7th game, as the Estonian coughed up 4 double-faults in the first set, got roughly half of her first serves in, and struggled with errors.
Playing in the biggest match of her career, Kontaveit regained her composure in the second act, converting on break point in the 7th game, but she could not capitalise as Muguruza’s steel kicked in and the Spaniard fired off a mighty forehand winner in the 10th game to level.
Muguruza, who won nearly 70% of her first-serve points across the match, broke Kontaveit’s serve again to clinch the affair, crumpling to the court with her hands over her face before greeting her opponent for a hug at the net.
“I remember when [WTA CEO Steve Simon] and I were in the US Open and he told me that Guadalajara could be a possibility for the Finals and I was like ‘Oh my God, I have to make it,’ and look now, we’re here,” said a smiling Muguruza before hoisting the Billie Jean King Trophy in front of the jubilant crowd. “For me it was a dream come true to play here.”
It was Muguruza’s 4th appearance at the season-ending finals and her first in the championship match.
“This is just another proof that, I think, I’m actually in the best moment of my career,” Muguruza said, adding that she will be celebrating with some Tequilla.
“The experience I have now, the tennis, the way I handle myself, I think it’s actually much better than before.”
Muguruza is the first Spaniard to win the WTA Finals singles title in the event’s history, after former World No 1 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario became the only other player from Spain to reach the WTA Finals singles championship match in 1993, but finished as runner-up to Steffi Graf.
It was the 7th time that round-robin competitors found themselves in a rematch in the final.
Kontaveit and Muguruza ranked first and second in hard-court wins this season, with 39 and 35 matches won respectively, but it was the Spaniard who prevailed in an hour and 38 minutes to bring the 2021 season to a close, improving her head-to-head to 4-2 overall against the Estonian.
Muguruza now boasts a commanding 14-2 win-loss career record on Mexican soil, having won back-to-back titles in Monterrey in 2018 and 2019.
“Right now I feel extremely happy and relieved because it’s a tournament that I’ve struggled at the beginning, then I managed to play well,” Muguruza said, in her post-match press conference. “I think I’m staying composed a little bit now because it means really a lot to me to win such a big, big, big tournament, the [WTA Finals] in Latin America, here in Mexico. I think it’s just perfect.
“I’m just very happy I proved to myself once again I can be the best, I can be the maestra, like how we say in Spanish.
“That puts me in a very good position for next year, a good ranking….It’s just the payoff for such a long year. My team and I worked hard. It pays off. Just shows us that we’re doing the right way.
“This trophy, like right now here, these are the best feelings. Not even the ranking. Just to actually touch this and I take it home, it’s in the story, it’s in my curriculum. It’s the way of, like, ‘I did it.'”
The two relatively close sets went the way of Muguruza due partially to her greater effectiveness returning second serves.
Kontaveit only won 38 percent of the Spaniard’s second-service points, while Muguruza claimed nearly 60 percent of points off of the Estonian’s second delivery.
They were almost evenly matched in winners during the clash, with 16 for Muguruza and 15 for Kontaveit, but the former World No 1 played the cleaner match overall, with 14 fewer unforced errors than the 24-year old Estonian.
A tense first set saw the pair exchange breaks early before Kontaveit dropped a backhand into the net to give Muguruza a 4-3 lead, and she eased through the opening frame from there, winning the last 4 games as she sealed the one-set lead with a deft backhand lob winner.
Kontaveit, though, grabbed the early lead in the second as Muguruza’s miscues, particularly from the forehand side, started to mount as she ceded a break, and the Estonian used her power play to consolidate and build a 5-3 lead.
With Kontaveit serving for the set, however, Muguruza pulled back level at 5-5 after deploying a forehand winner down the line on break point, and the Spaniard dominated from there, winning the final 4 games for the second time while breaking the Estonian to love to wrap up the win and take home the year-end crown.
Following her triumph the year before at Roland Garros, Muguruza, then 23, proved she was an all-court player when she beat Venus Williams in the Wimbledon final and seemed on the verge of world domination.
She held the No 1 ranking for 4 weeks and finished the year ranked 2, behind Simona Halep, but the next 3 years proved disappointing as her year-end rankings dipped to No 18, and then 36, before recovering to No 15.
Now 28, the oldest year-end champion since Serena Williams 7 years ago, Muguruza is back at the top after her puzzling 3-year sabbatical, and it is a very welcome return to form for the Spaniard.
“The last couple of years, I didn’t play the same way I played before,” Muguruza said. “But I didn’t play a bad tennis, either.
“I was just here, there, not going into the deep rounds at Grand Slams that made the difference. I always felt I had the tennis. I was just not putting the battle together.
“I always believe I made finals of a Grand Slam, reached the rankings, I’m like, I have the tennis, I just have to show it. It’s hard, of course.”
She broke with longtime coach Sam Sumyk in 2019 after losing in the first round at Wimbledon and the US Open, and joined an expedition to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, which was a harrowing 5-day journey that took her through icy rivers, glaciers and sub-zero temperatures.
“It was a very hard challenge, completely different to what I do,” Muguruza told reporters at the 2020 Australian Open. “You’re climbing that mountain, and it’s only you.
“I really like the experience to see myself in the middle of nowhere and, yeah, just having one clear thought just to keep climbing.”
With coach Conchita Martinez now back in her corner, Muguruza was the player least fazed by the 5,200-foot elevation of Guadalajara, and that is who she ran to after the last ball on Wednesday, for a group hug with her team.
When Muguruza came up to the microphone, she turned to Kontaveit and said with a smile: “Sorry that we had to play twice.”