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.
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.”
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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She is a “young gun” that can surely become a “top-notch player” if she gets quicker, according to two-time grand slam champion Andy Murray.
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“Fun to watch, aces, winners, great timing,” the world No4 tweeted last month as he watched Karolina Pliskova take on Petra Kvitova in the Sydney final.
It was a tight affair between the two Czechs and for most of it, you’d struggle to pinpoint which player was a double Wimbledon champion and which one was Pliskova – a huge-hitting up-and-comer who was looking to make her top-20 debut.
Kvitova ended up winning that final in two tiebreak sets but it was Pliskova who caught the eye of many, including Murray and his three million Twitter followers.
“The movement is probably the weakest side of mine but I’m still working on it and I hope it will be better. And I hope that Andy will one day say that I’m fast enough for him,” a smiling Pliskova told Sport360° ahead of her second main draw appearance at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
While the world No22 is yet to become a household name, Pliskova’s Sydney run certainly didn’t come out of nowhere.
A week prior to that, Pliskova had taken out ex-world No1 Victoria Azarenka in Brisbane, carrying over the momentum from the end of last season where she made the US Open third round – eliminating world No9 Ana Ivanovic en route – before reaching the final in Hong Kong and picking up titles in Seoul and Linz.
The 22-year-old is everything Murray said she is. She sports the kind of boom-boom tennis we’re used to seeing from her compatriot Kvitova and it looks like the WTA tour will have to make room for one more powerful Czech at the top of the women’s game pretty soon.
“I’ve always been serving well. It’s my biggest weapon,” says Pliskova.
Pliskova has a tennis-playing sister, Kristyna, and the pair made history together at Linz in 2013 when they became the first-ever twins to win a doubles title on the WTA tour.
The twins had great success as juniors, with Karolina winning the Australian Open junior title in 2010 and Kristyna taking the girls’ singles trophy at Wimbledon the same year. But the twins learnt the hard way that having a successful junior career doesn’t necessarily translate into grand slam victories on the women’s circuit, and it has taken Karolina five years to reach the world’s top 20 and make the third round in the women’s draw at Melbourne Park – the site of her greatest triumph as a junior.
— TennisNow (@Tennis_Now) February 13, 2015
“Juniors is a totally different competition so it was a little bit tough to come through after that knowing that you are a good junior, getting into the women’s game. Because no one cares that you won Melbourne, or that my sister won Wimbledon,” she says.
“So it was a little bit tough for us to get through in the women’s game. But I was still ranked 150 or 200. Then by winning my first title (in Kuala Lumpur in 2013), I got into the top 100 and that was a turning point for me.”
In the solitary world of tennis, it must be a true blessing to have a sister who is also a professional player. While Karolina explains that she gets along well with everyone in the locker room, she knows she is particularly lucky to have her twin around.
“I have a few friends, especially the Czech girls. But I don’t really need anyone because I have her (Kristyna). That’s why it’s the best thing to have a sister playing the same sport, having her around in the tournaments,” says Karolina, who is two minutes younger than Kristyna.
But her recent leap in the rankings means she is now 122 spots higher than Kristyna in the standings and as their career trajectories diverge, Karolina admits things are getting a bit harder for her sister.
“I think it’s more difficult now for her than for me because I’m still in the tournaments and playing well so I’m enjoying that time. But she has to get a little bit more up, get some points, win some matches and I hope she’s going to be in the same tournaments as me soon,” she adds.
“We are really great friends. We talk every day, always on the phone. But we fight sometimes if we are too much together. One year we were together in every single tournament, and every day together, so we were a little bit fighting. But now it’s a little bit different.”
Karolina, who owns three WTA titles from seven final appearances, could very much have a major breakthrough this season. She was seeded at a grand slam for the first time in Melbourne last month and led the Czech Republic to a 4-0 sweep against Canada in Fed Cup last weekend – in her first nomination from her home country.
She confessed that she felt a little pressure as a seed at the Australian Open but says she won’t pile any expectations on herself moving forward this season.
“I don’t want to have any expectations from myself. I just want to stay in the top 20 or around 20 because I’m defending quite a lot of points this year and it’s going to be hard to stay there,” she says.
“But I started the year well so now it looks like it’s not going to be that hard.”
And having received some valuable advice from Murray, does she have any words of wisdom for the British No1? “I don’t want to say anything, I think he’s good enough,” she laughs. “But he can get quicker as well.”