INTERVIEW: Garbine Muguruza – Sizzling Spaniard on fast track to stardom

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Rising star: Spain's Garbine Muguruza is a player to look out for after a break-through 2014 season.

When it comes to imagining what the future of women’s tennis will look like, it’s hard not to picture Garbine Muguruza being a big part of it. The Spaniard can be a force of nature on the court, and she’s already given an indication of what she’s capable of when she beat Serena Williams at the French Open last year, and most recently shocked world No.3 Simona Halep in the Fed Cup in the Romanian’s hometown.

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Muguruza plays with a type of fearlessness she says she got courtesy of her parents. Born in Caracas to a Venezuelan mother and a Spanish father, the 21-year-old says she had always been taught to be bold – a trait she probably developed even more growing up as the only girl with two older brothers.

“I think I have a very strong personality on court. Really motivated and I play really brave on court. I don’t get scared and I think that’s really important in women’s tennis,” Muguruza told Sport360 ahead of her Dubai Tennis Championships opening round against Australia’s Jarmila Gajdosova today.

“I always had that. I think my parents always told me ‘you have to be brave and don’t be scared of anything’.”

That advice has certainly paid off. Just around the time Muguruza was turning 21 at the end of last season, she entered the world’s top-20 for the first time. Having missed the last six months of 2013 recovering from an ankle surgery, the Spaniard made a monster start to 2014, winning eight matches in a row to claim her maiden WTA title in Hobart as a qualifier.

The following week, she reached the fourth round of a major for the first time in Australia and five months later she was a French Open quarter-finalist, taking out world No.1 Williams en route.

“It was a very significant time for me when I was injured. It was at this age, 18, where you have to find something to do. I learnt from those six months when I was injured that I really wanted to play tennis,” she says.

“I was like ‘there’s nothing more important for me’. So I went and practiced and I was really motivated and the second week of the next year I won a tournament.

“So this was like a sign for me, like you have the opportunity in your hand to do it.”

She had to tackle another challenge last season in the form of choosing a country to represent.

She was facing a lot of pressure from both Venezuela and Spain and she finally chose the latter.

“It was terrible for a year and a half. Everybody was asking me ‘why don’t you play for Spain? Why don’t you play for Venezuela?’ It was an important decision. My family is involved, my tennis, everything. I just chose Spain because it was my best option. All my life I have been practicing there (in Barcelona). My tennis was made there.

“But I felt a lot of pressure with everyone asking me to choose, choose, choose. But it’s normal. I would do the same if I wanted someone to play (for my country).”

Muguruza played for Spain for the first time in Fed Cup just last week, and despite winning both her singles matches, her team eventually succumbed to Romania 2-3.

“I was really nervous. I was No.1 in the team, a lot of things were new to me and also playing in Romania and Simona (Halep) now is like the big star of the country. All the people were screaming at me,” she recalls.

“But I played amazing. I’m sad because the team didn’t play as well as I played but what can I say? I did all I could.

“When I play, I play for me, but when I saw that everyone was telling me ‘Garbine, you’re playing for Spain, I don’t know how many people are waiting for you to win this’ I was like ‘s***, it’s not only me now, it’s like the whole country’. It’s different.”

Garbine Muguruza with the Hobart International trophy after beating Klara Zakopalova in the final.

Having established herself in the world’s top-30, Muguruza – now ranked 24 – comes to the Middle East for the first time as a direct entrant in the top-tiered events in Dubai and Doha.

“I’ve always tried to play the big tournaments since I was a kid. So for me it’s good to see that I’m playing in these events all the time now. It’s just motivation, I’m here with the best players. Chapter by chapter, next year hopefully I can be one of the top players,” she says.

Muguruza plays with lots of aggression and purpose on the court, and off it, she says she is just as restless. Whether it’s listening to music, surfing the internet, going out for a coffee, or hitting the mall, she says she can “never stay calm” and always wants to be doing something.

Which explains why she says the hardest thing about being a professional player is missing out on the things typically experienced by people her age.

“I have to say no to a lot of things. There are so many things you can do but you can’t. Going on vacation with friends, you cannot. A lot of things sometimes I want to do and I can’t. You can’t go skiing because you can break your leg,” she admits.

One thing she would change about her life on tour is how every girl sticks to herself and her team. She echoed the words many of her contemporaries have been saying, that the tour is not a place to make friends because the next day, they become your adversaries on the court.

But she wishes things could be different.

“I think [we need] to have more relation with other people. Not to live in a bubble. We don’t talk with anyone. To be more open. But we can’t do this together so…” she says when asked what she would change about her time on the circuit.

“It’s not like that on the men’s tour. I don’t understand why. I think girls are more like (imitates a cat’s claw-like gesture). The men, they just sit there, they eat, they have dinner together and I’m like ‘what? are you crazy?’

“With the Spanish players I kind of have more relation, but with the rest, no. It’s sad.”

She admits that her fellow players started respecting her more after her good results last season and you get the sense that she walks amongst the big guns now feeling that she belongs.

But does she feel she is ready to win a grand slam? “I felt that I was close in Roland Garros (in 2014), even though I lost in the quarter-finals. I have this feeling that I have to improve more, but I’m one of those type of players that maybe can do that.

“I like to play on the big courts, don’t have fear of the big names. I think if things come together, maybe it can happen.”

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