Simona Halep defeated Garbiñe Muguruza in straight sets to reach Saturday’s French Open final where she will play American Sloane Stephens. That match is pretty simple to size up. Either the World No.1 will finally break through to win her first major, or she will be outdueled by a bigger hitter on one of the sport’s grandest stages yet again with the 10th seed winning her second major.
Halep goes in as a solid favorite, having not lost to Stephens in more than five years. There will be a lot written about both the champion and finalist regardless of the outcome. However, what happens to Muguruza’s career from here is far murkier and also warrants a deeper look.
With Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka all missing huge chunks of time in the last handful of years and not dominating upon returning to the game, we have seen many names come and go at the top of the women’s game. With Petra Kvitova stabilizing her career this year, Muguruza is now the toughest player on tour to figure out.
The now 24-year-old Spaniard burst onto the scene at the 2014 French Open where she handed a top-seeded Williams one of her worst ever Grand Slam defeats in the second round. It was obvious at that point that Muguruza had the right mix of power and movement to be one of the greats.
In truth, this was the start of a puzzling career trajectory that is still ongoing. Despite playing basically a full schedule, Muguruza had barely cracked the top 20 by the following year at Wimbledon. There, she blasted her way to the final where she acquitted herself well in a straight-sets loss to Williams. After a strong finish to 2015, it finally looked like Muguruza was going to live up to her seemingly endless potential.
However, the early part of 2016 was not good as Muguruza appeared to struggle with the expectations that come with winning. She reached just one semifinal before the French Open where she was the fourth seed. On a clay surface that in theory should not support Muguruza’s taller frame in power based game, she won six of seven matches in straight sets to win her first career Grand Slam.
Once again though, the Spaniard’s results fell off a cliff. She did not reach a singles final of any kind for over a year. Her seed had dropped to 14th at Wimbledon last year. She won the title by dismantling Venus Williams in the final.
After following that up with another prestigious title in Cincinnati a few weeks later, she briefly became World No. 1. It again looked like someone from the current crop of WTA players was at long last going to stick their head above the rest. But she once again became mostly a non-factor for the rest of 2017 as well as the first part of this year.
After just two match wins on clay all year leading into the 2018 French Open, Muguruza’s name was not on anyone’s mind as far as contenders in Paris. Despite that, she reached the semis without dropping a set. Her draw included two former Roland Garros champions as well as a former finalist.
Once the reigning Wimbledon champion clobbered Sharapova 6-2, 6-1 in the quarterfinals, the tournament felt over. Nobody, not even Serena Williams, has ever beaten a fully healthy and in form Sharapova that badly in Paris. The semifinal matchup was a good one for Muguruza as well. The last time she had played Halep, she dropped just one game.
Still, Halep won convincingly to reach the final. Muguruza has tried several different coaching arrangements in search of week in week out consistency. Obviously, with his roadmap of results, none have worked.
Muguruza will now head off to the grass courts to prepare to defend her Wimbledon title. Muguruza’s career patterns suggest she is due for an early upset there. If that happens, her ranking will take another tumble.
If there is a sports psychologist out there who can figure out what makes this immensely talented player so brilliant at one tournament and then awful at the next, there is a huge payday to be had. The only thing certain about Muguruza is when you see someone make Sharapova retreat as much as Muguruza did in the brief highlight video below from the Roland Garros YouTube channel, it is both breathtaking and maddening. Breathtaking because the vast majority of the Russian’s peers have been unable to do that for the better part of 15 years, and maddening because you know that this kind of form from Muguruza disappears as quickly as it appears.
Featrured image from plustvafrica.com
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