INTERVIEW: Muguruza - Bouncing back from post-Wimbledon woe

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Rollercoaster ride: The Spanish sensation is tipped to do great things after a whirlwind year.

If there’s one thing Garbine Muguruza has learned this season it is that the view from the top may be pretty but life up there is also hard.

Ranked a career-high world No3 this week, Muguruza, 22, has enjoyed a meteoric rise in 2015, highlighted by her runner-up showing at Wimbledon following a second straight quarter-final appearance at Roland Garros. 

The youngest in the WTA Finals field in Singapore this week, the Venezuelan-born Spaniard is making her singles debut at the elite season finale, where she is also competing in doubles alongside her friend and partner Carla Suarez Navarro.

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Seeded No2 and coming off an impressive stretch of results in the Asian swing post-US Open, all eyes are on Muguruza, who kicked off her campaign in aggressive fashion, beating Lucie Safarova 6-3, 7-6 (4) in their opening White Group round robin match.

While she appears to be on a roll at the moment it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Muguruza.

After picking up the runner-up trophy at Wimbledon, where she beat four top-15 players in a row before succumbing to Serena Williams, the Spaniard hit a rough patch, losing in her opening rounds in Toronto and Cincinnati and falling to Johanna Konta in the second round at the US Open. 

It is a common tale in women’s tennis. Li Na lost her second round at Wimbledon straight after winning her first major in Paris in 2011. Petra Kvitova made a first round exit at the US Open following her 2011 Wimbledon triumph. Muguruza knew the drill but was trying desperately not to become another casualty of the post-breakthrough slump. 

“I think when you reach a very high situation, it’s normal after like ‘boom’ down. It’s hard to deal with this, I wasn’t used to it,” Muguruza told Sport360 in Singapore ahead of her second group match today against Angelique Kerber. 

“I just felt like starting from zero after that was hard. Going to another tournament, you’re kind of like ‘oh’, first round, second round… so I just learned from that.”

It is how she rebounded from that slump that has cemented the notion that she is the real deal in people’s minds. 

A final showing in Wuhan and a title win in Beijing within the past four weeks have positioned her as one of the top contenders for the Billie Jean King trophy in Singapore.

“I worked hard for Asia so the same thing wouldn’t happen (like after Wimbledon). So it’s good. Hopefully you don’t need to see those kind of things, but sometimes to hit the wall and realise ‘Garbine you’re doing something wrong’ is good,” said Muguruza.
“It feels good to be able to overcome difficult situations, because every day is like this. And if you want to be one of the best players everything is hard. So to see that I’m on a good path, that I’m improving, is what I want to feel. It’s a very good position to be in.”

Looking back at her roller coaster year, which she started as the world No24 and ends inside the top three, Muguruza pinpoints her biggest take-away from it all. 

“In this year I felt a lot of things. I’ve learned a lot from that Wimbledon final after. It’s just hard when you live something like this and then you see that people at the top have to deal with this all the time. It’s hard. That’s what I learned,” she says.

It came as a surprise to some that after her Wimbledon high, Muguruza split with her coach Alejo Mancisidor. She’s not the first player to change her coaching arrangement after achieving something great together – Simona Halep parted way with Wim Fissette after making the final in Singapore last year – but it still raised some eyebrows. 

“I think it’s normal that people think it’s weird that we split after the Wimbledon final. But the Wimbledon final was just something that happened, the decision was not going to change,” she explains. “When you spend a lot of time with someone, eventually it’s like ‘okay, I heard everything I needed to hear’. So to make a new step I said ‘come on, Garbine, you need something else to improve more’. We had an amazing journey but it’s just if I want to be the best, tennis is like this.”

Mancisidor posted a lengthy public comment on Facebook after the split in August where he claimed that he “abandoned the project because of too many differences and my values did not allow me to believe and follow through with it”.

Muguruza admits that post was a bit of an eye-opener for her.

“I think I would never do that,” she says referring to Mancisidor’s public post. 

“I think when you work with someone it’s between you and that person and it stays there. So it’s not nice. But I can’t do anything about it. I’ve learned that it’s different to know people until you put them against the wall. I’m not saying anything but it’s just that it’s good to see things like this happening, I’ve learned from that.”

After the US Open, Muguruza started working with Sam Sumyk, Victoria Azarenka’s ex-coach, who briefly teamed up with Eugenie Bouchard before joining the Spaniard’s camp on a trial basis.

With the Spaniard suffering after Wimbledon and Sumyk coming off an unspectacular stint with Bouchard, the pairing became an instant success and Muguruza confirmed they will continue working together moving forward.

“I think we work really good together,” she said of the Frenchman. 

“I think we have kind of like a similar personality. We felt really fast ‘come on let’s work’. I think the moment we started together we were really motivated to do great things and so far it’s going well and hopefully we can continue like this.”

Few people embrace pressure the way Muguruza does. She lives for performing on the big stage and has a real opportunity to shine in Singapore this week.

Li Na picked her as an up-and-coming player who has impressed her the most this season, calling her “aggressive, young and talented” while Spanish legend Arantxa Sanchez Vicario says the expectations are high back home.

Carla Suarez Navarro and Garbine Muguruza in action during the WTA Finals in Singapore.

“She’s definitely one I think of the favourites to win here,” said the four-time grand slam champion, who was the last Spanish woman to qualify to the WTA Finals (in 2001) before Muguruza ended that drought. 

“I love the way she plays and her mentality. She’s a great player and person. I’m really happy. I mean, we have waited a long time in Spain for this.”

Muguruza says she isn’t feeling the pressure to try and emulate Sanchez Vicario.

“She achieved a lot of things and I am far from that. It’s just good to hear that (people are comparing me to her) but all I can say is thank you,” said Muguruza.

“I’m not feeling pressure. It’s normal. Spanish people want to have someone there. They have Rafa (Nadal) and people want a woman fighting there, so it’s good, it’s good.

“I don’t see me as a favourite. I don’t want this pressure. Maybe if I’m Serena I’d be like ‘yeah, I need to win’ but I’m not.”

So does she feel she can win the WTA Finals?

“I’ve played with all these girls, they’re not new to me. Yes definitely I feel like I can win. But let’s see what happens. I have no idea,” she says.

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Reem's Diary: Vibrant Li Na revelling in her new role as mother

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New role: Li Na.

One of the best things about the WTA Finals in Singapore is that we get a chance to catch up with Li Na who is an ambassador of the tournament and has been showing up for it in her retirement.

The charming Chinese star has a great sense of humour and is one of the most popular female tennis players.

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She became a mother around five months ago, to a baby girl named Alisa, and she told us motherhood is definitely tougher than being a tennis player.

“Time is running so fast.  After one year I got a lot of changes in my life. Also I got a lot of experience.  Four and a half month ago I became a mum. I always feel being a mum is much tougher than when I was playing,” said the two-time grand slam champion.

“When I was playing I can totally control schedule, timing, but being a mum it’s tough to control the baby.”

A journalist complimented Li Na and told her she looked pretty and relaxed. The 33-year-old quickly answered with a laugh: “I was pretty as well before (as a player). When I was on court it was my competition face. Now you see my off court face.”

Maria Sharapova, who shares an agent with Li Na in Max Eisenbud, said she was thrilled to catch up with her.

“The fans, the tournament, everyone that has worked with her and played against her, I think she just has something, a good vibe, a good feeling when she’s around. I think she makes us all laugh. I think she’s even funnier when she’s not playing. More relaxed. It’s just nice to see her,” said the Russian.

Meanwhile, American legend Tracy Austin, who is playing the Legends Classic here in Singapore, revealed she can’t wait for the day she is referred to as Brandon Holt’s mum rather than Tracy Austin.

Turns out her 17-year-old son Brandon is starting to make a career out of tennis and he just won singles and doubles titles at a junior ITF.

“He’s still in school. All the kids he plays against are not in school. Yesterday he flew to Florida to do a 10-day camp with the USTA with Ivan Lendl and Jez Green. That’s pretty exciting times for him. I figured you got to miss school for that, because Ivan Lendl has a lot of knowledge and a lot of insight on how to play on clay as well. Very exciting time.”

Good for Brandon. Spending time with Lendl certainly worked for Andy Murray. I guess we should watch out for Tracy’s son in the future.

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Pennetta gets timely advice to overpower Radwanska

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Resilient: Flavia Pennetta.

Sometimes all it takes between a win and a loss is one really good pep talk. Lucky for Flavia Pennetta, her Spanish coach Salvador Navarro had one of those on hand as he helped her pull off a straight sets victory over Agnieszka Radwanska in the WTA Finals on Tuesday.

The US Open champion denied Radwanska the chance to register a 500th career match win by defeating her 7-6 (5), 6-4 in a one-hour 39-minute contest on the second day of Red Group round robin action.

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Pennetta had lost their only previous meeting in 2015, 6-1, 6-1 in Doha in February but Tuesday’s affair was a complete reversal.

Radwanska twice went up a break in the opening set and served for it at 5-4 but Pennetta broke back both times. At the changeover down 4-5, Pennetta frantically called for Navarro for an on-court coaching visit after which the Italian immediately broke serve to draw level at 5-5.

“He told me to be more aggressive, to be more forceful with my backhand than my forehand because I was not that sure all the time when I was pushing with the backhand and make some mistakes,” Pennetta revealed after the match. “I did it,” she added laughing. “And it was working.”

Pennetta started to become more ruthless with her backhand – the down the line shot particularly doing lots of damage.

Radwanska meanwhile was unravelling, vulnerable as ever on her second serve and suffering up front at the net.

The No7 seed took the opening set tiebreak and kept her chances of advancing to the semi-finals alive.

Three games into the second set, Pennetta had a medical timeout for a blister on her right foot. The WTA Finals debutante began perfecting her down the line backhand passes and winners and got the break in the seventh game to go 4-3 up.

Radwanska saved three match points to hold for 4-5 but Pennetta closed out the clash with an ace, a smash and fittingly two backhand down the line winners.

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