WTA Finals: Kerber flies, Muguruza flails, and the future looks rough for tennis teens

kerber_birmingham
Angelique Kerber at the 2016 Aegon Classic Birmingham. (Copyright Abigail Johnson.)

On Sunday at the WTA Finals, Angelique Kerber fought to a three set triumph over Dominika Cibulkova to get her campaign underway. On Monday, Garbine Muguruza held match point in her clash with Karolina Pliskova – but went down 6-2 6-7(4) 7-5. It once again begs the question: How has Kerber landed the success that Muguruza appeared destined for?

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Garbine Muguruza did everything right.

In an era of tennis where teenage Grand Slam champions are non-existent, players are priming in their 30s, and the all-round excellence required to compete at the top is ever-accelerating, Muguruza appeared ready to be the sport’s next legend.

Producing deep WTA runs as a teenage qualifier, the fierce baseliner established herself in the top 100 before hitting her 20s. When injury sidelined her for half a year following Wimbledon 2013, the Venezuelan-born starlet made a near perfect return to competitive action: blazing to Hobart International triumph in just her second event back. It was during Muguruza’s comeback season – flooded with consistent results – that she made the run which placed her on everybody’s radar: a quarterfinal showing at the 2014 French Open. It featured a 6-2 6-2 destruction of top seed Serena Williams in round two.

The youngster hardly spent long blinking like a deer in the headlights. Her mindset and focus as impressive as her aggressive groundstrokes, Muguruza was into a Premier semifinal before the season was out. Skip ahead to the end of 2015, and the 21-year-old had gone deep at three of the four majors, stormed all the way to the Wimbledon final, clinched nine top ten wins, and finished the year at world no. 3. Not bad at all.

Unlike contemporaries who had previously assailed similar heights, only to tumble back to earth – Eugenie Bouchard a leading example – Muguruza had not skipped a single rung of the WTA development ladder. The Spaniard’s rankings rise had been a steady ascent – demonstrating the determination, skill and dedication that a long-term champion requires. Therefore, the then-22-year-old was not surprised when she claimed her first Grand Slam title at the 2016 French Open – despite having entered the event in uncertain form. It was an achievement she had been intently pursuing, with a game face and a complete game of sheer intensity that was inspired by her final victim: Serena.

“Something inside me expected that of myself,” Muguruza stated after Paris. This convincing mentality was just one of the reasons why many believed this talent to be women’s tennis’ next big thing.

Perhaps Garbine Muguruza is, indeed, the WTA’s next major superstar. Everyone is prone to a wobble – even, at present, a 22-time Slam champion. Nevertheless, many thought Muguruza akin to the 19-year-old Venus Williams who won the US Open in 2000. Or the 21-year-old Justine Henin who claimed 2003 Roland Garros glory. These were women who won big, stayed on top, and refused to majorly falter in the immediate aftermath of brilliance.

At the time of writing, Garbine Muguruza is competing in Singapore’s WTA Finals for the second straight year. From having a shot at the world no. 1 spot as recently as August, she has slipped to world no. 6. And a record of just 12 wins to nine losses since her French Open triumph became 12 wins to ten losses early Tuesday morning in Singapore. Despite holding match point, on serve, at 5-2 in her deciding set against Karolina Pliskova, Muguruza was broken three straight times to fall 6-2 6-7(4) 7-5.

In 2014, during her magical Roland Garros run, Muguruza was asked what had improved most in her game to bear these results. She responded: “I think I am better mentally, psychologically.” Two years on, it would be interesting to see if she would change one word in that sentence: “better” to “worse”.

On this note, we transfer our attention to Angelique Kerber. Now the year-end world no. 1, WTA Player of the Year, and a two-time Grand Slam champion, it is hard to believe that Kerber was world no. 10 and Slamless at the season’s beginning. The 28-year-old was even required to save match point in surviving the Australian Open first round – a moment that possibly dictated her season. Even with the inconsistency of the rest of the tour, Serena’s string of injuries and a disastrous French Open campaign, Kerber’s evolving few months have been one of the most intriguing and impressive WTA performances in recent times.

But we digress. To trace Kerber’s career from its roots would take too long, but we can cover it in a nutshell. She only began making a real impact in her early 20s, rocketing from world no. 118 to world no. 52 during the 2010 season. From the year 2011 onward, the 28-year-old was a consistent top 20 player – but never looked likely to be anything more than a consistent top ten star. While her counter-punching style in a sea of aggression was always going to be in the minority, the 28-year-old’s tendency to plateau also resulted in a lack of flashy showings. Even last season, when the lefty won four WTA titles, Angelique Kerber’s name was simply not enough to intimidate opposition. Trampled over by players of a lower caliber all too regularly, the dark horse spent the majority of the season ranked in the top 20 – whilst dropping almost every match she played against top ten opposition.

And yet Kerber has completely turned things around – bursting from the 2016 starting blocks with gusto. She may have gone on a wander after her stunning maiden Slam triumph, but the WTA Finals top seed made that multi-month stumble a distant memory in the second half of the year. Currently atop the rankings by more than 1000 points – with her physical game not looking at all dissimilar to its status of the past few years – it cannot be a coincidence that the late-bloomer puts her success down purely to mental strength. Among her many insightful quotes on the year came the following gems at the US Open.

“Last year I was sitting at home, and my goals were to be playing better in the bigger tournaments – especially in the majors,” Kerber reflected in New York. “Right now, to win two Grand Slams and be the number one in the world, I think the key was more my mental side. I was trying to put everything together, be more positive, and I had all the confidence from the years before.”

She continued: “Now I’m not thinking about the quarters, semis or whatever. I’m just going out there to play a good match, and to win the match. I’m not thinking ahead, and I’m just trying to believe and to enjoy myself.”

An established top 20 star for several years, Kerber was under no external pressure to be anything more than that. Free from overwhelming national demands and a prodigious start to her career, she was at liberty to simply go for broke, and see how far that took her. Apparently, she realised this in 2016. And consequently, she entered the WTA Finals with two major titles, a Wimbledon final and an Olympic medal under her belt.

Garbine Muguruza, meanwhile, has been under a microscope since her 2014 French Open display. And the lens focusing on her career only magnified after her 2015 Wimbledon final run. Is it really so surprising that the Spaniard’s lone Slam trophy came after several under-the-radar results?

Ultimate champions in tennis – a sport demanding to the uttermost in terms of both physical and psychological ability – need to have complete belief in themselves. It is something Kerber has, self-professedly, developed throughout this season, ever since the leg-up that was her shock Aussie Open trophy.

Unfortunately for Muguruza, it seems that her own self belief – one that has seen her labelled arrogant on a number of occasions – has backfired on her. As many onlookers also did, the hard-working, top-spinning former prodigy believed that she herself was the WTA’s next headline act. So when the results did not start coming after her breakout title – which was clinched with a final performance so dominant that many were christening her the next world no. 1 – it appears that Muguruza panicked.

Yes, she has given valid reasons for all of her post-Paris losses. Yes, she has stated on occasion that she has low expectations for herself. Yes, she was well aware that the public pressure and expectancy would be thick and heavy after her victorious lob on Court Philippe Chatrier. But when you are faced with the enormity of a watching world, and the enormity of the desires you have for yourself, sometimes all the positive words in the world cannot maintain your mentality for an entire match.

Seven of her defeats since June have come in straight sets for Garbine Muguruza. When she is winning, she’s usually dominating. But when she is losing, she’s often the woman getting dominated. Whether this is because her own shots are spraying wide of the court, or because her opponent is playing lights-out tennis, it follows a specific theme: The more you flounder, the quicker you lose control. And it only takes one shot to flick that switch – as proved on Monday night in Singapore.

Honestly, Muguruza will likely be back in tennis’ top three pretty soon. Throughout her struggles, the 23-year-old – still solidly in the top ten – has never dropped her game face. The defending French Open champion is simply too ambitious, too lethal and too goof=d on her day to stay adrift for long.

Nevertheless, her lengthy wobble raises many questions. Eugenie Bouchard, a big-stage queen in 2014, continues to endure a rankings free-fall. Sloane Stephens was much the same after her 2012 heroics. Belinda Bencic, who made a seamless transition from juniors to seniors, and cannoned into the top ten at the tender age of 18, is currently nowhere after injury sunk her ranking. And even 21-year-old Madison Keys – present at the WTA Finals for the first time – has the raw power to have been a WTA dictator for some time now. Instead, the woman who first garnered worldwide attention at age 14 has been bobbing back and forth, her precision ebbing and flowing.

Angelique Kerber – like Li Na, and Marion Bartoli, and Flavia Pennetta in the years since 2010 – needed many years of competitive experience before she could strike true gold. And it might be worth noticing that each of these aforementioned women, at their moments of ultimate glory, were enjoying their tennis. As the losses pile up, can Muguruza possibly be relishing every first or second round match against an unpredictable opponent? One thing is for sure: With the mentality she’s been displaying of late, picking herself up after this latest disaster is going to be incredibly difficult for Singapore’s no. 5 seed.

Garbine Muguruza’s route to the realms of the elite was once the correct formula. But thanks to internal and external pressure, it is now a blessing in disguise.

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Thanks for reading! Is there a place for young stars amongst the WTA elite? Discuss in the comments section below!

2 thoughts on “WTA Finals: Kerber flies, Muguruza flails, and the future looks rough for tennis teens

  1. Thanks!

    To be honest, I think she will get back up there. She may take a year to find herself again, or she might make a good start to the new season and get her mentality back straight off. In mind of the fact that she’s a fair bit younger than most of the current top 10 (and 20), I’m thinking she should at least rise up once they’re gone. Plus, the WTA still majorly lacks consistency, which will help her cause.

    Like

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