Muguruza Peaking In Time For Year’s First Major

Garbiñe Muguruza (photo: Rob Prezioso/Tennis Australia)

WASHINGTON, February 6, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Two-time major winner Garbiñe Muguruza has been en fuego all week Down Under as she prepares for the Australian Open, which begins on Monday at Melbourne Park.

How hot has the World No. 15 been? Consider this, in her four victories this week in the Yarra Valley Classic, the sixth-seeded Muguruza has dropped just 10 games while winning all eight of her sets. Her earlier-round victims have included Alison Van Uytvanck, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Sofia Kenin. Twice, she’s bageled her opponents. The Spaniard is playing fearless tennis – a reminder that Muguruza is a two-time Grand Slam champion who is peaking just in time for the first major of 2021.

On Saturday, Muguruza needed just 53 minutes to beat her latest opponent, No. 8 seed Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic, 6-1, 6-0. The victory on Margaret Court Arena advanced her to the title match of the WTA 500-series event, a final tune-up for the year’s first Grand Slam.

“I’m very happy for sure,” Muguruza said during her on-court interview following her semifinal win. “I think I played well today. My serve was working in the right moments and I felt like, since the beginning of the match, I could take control of the points.”

Muguruza won 78 percent of her services points, faced no break points and broke her Czech opponent five times. She hit 19 winners and committed just 10 unforced errors. Meanwhile, Vondrousova finished with just five winners and hit 22 unforced errors. The only game she won came when she held her serve in the fourth game of the opening set.

On Sunday, Muguruza will meet World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty of Australia in the championship final. The top seed advanced by walkover after Serena Williams withdrew following her Friday quarterfinal, citing a right shoulder injury.

While Barty has dropped a set in two of her matches, against Marie Bouzkova and Shelby Rogers, she has won five of her six championship matches over the past two years. Barty owns a 2-1 head-to-head advantage with all of their previous meetings going three sets. In their last meeting, in the quarterfinal round of the Qatar Total Open in Doha last February, Barty won 6-1, 6-7 (4), 6-2.

“It’s always good to play the top players, especially the No. 1 right now,” said Muguruza, whose last title victory came in Monterrey, Mexico in 2019. “We’ve had tough matches, so I’m expecting another battle.”

In WTA finals, Barty is 8-5, while Muguruza is 7-5.

Kanepi to face Mertens in Gippsland Trophy final

Unseeded Kaia Kanepi from Estonia reached the final of the Gippsland Trophy with a 6-3, 7-6 (6) victory over No. 9 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova of Russia in one hour and 28 minutes on Saturday afternoon on Margaret Court Arena.

The No. 94 Kanepi, who earlier this week ended Aryna Sabalenka‘s WTA-leading 15-match winning streak, is the oldest player in the Gippsland Trophy draw at age 35. But she’s taken on and defeated all comers to earn a berth in her first WTA singles final since 2013. Her opponent in Sunday’s final will be No. 7 seed Elise Mertens of Belgium, who advanced by walkover after No. 2 seed Naomi Osaka withdrew prior to their semifinal match on Saturday.

“I didn’t expect to be in the final,” Kanepi said on court after her win. “I just expected to play good every match I play.”

Osaka, the 2019 Australian Open champion, cited a “niggling injury” for her precaution in pulling out of Saturday’s encounter against the 20th-ranked Mertens, two days ahead of the start of the Australian Open.

Mertens, 25, played in two finals last year, on clay at Prague and on an indoor hard court at the end of the 2020 season in Linz. Her last singles title came at Doha in 2019.

In head-to-head competition, Kanepi and Mertens have split their previous two matches. Kanepi won at Charleston in 2019, while Mertens won at last year’s Roland Garros.

Sakkari feels at home in Melbourne

Every time Greece’s Maria Sakkari comes to play in Australia, whether in the Australian Open or this week in the Grampians Trophy, she feels at home. On Saturday, the No. 5 seed Sakkari hit 26 winners and defeated No. 8 seed Angelique Kerber of Germany, 6-4, 6-2, to reach the semifinal round of the WTA 500-series tune-up event at Melbourne Park.

“I have my Greeks here, which feels great,” said Sakkari, acknowledging her Greek fans while standing on Margaret Court Arena during her post-match interview. “That’s the first thing I’m looking forward to when I come to Australia, so it was great.

“Funnily enough, this is my home tournament. I don’t have a professional tournament back home, so as I mentioned, every time I come back to Australia, it feels like I’m at home.”

Next, Sakkari will oppose No. 6 seed Anett Kontaveit of Estonia, who advanced to the semifinals after No. 3 seed Victoria Azarenka of Belarus withdrew from their quarterfinal match citing a lower back injury. It will be Kontaveit’s 12th WTA singles semifinal appearance.

The other semifinal will match No. 25 Jennifer Brady of the United States against fellow American Ann Li, ranked 99th. The seventh-seeded Brady defeated Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic, 7-6 (5), 6-4 while Li advanced over No. 72 Sorana Cirstea of Romania, 6-3, 6-1. It will be Li’s first WTA semifinal.

After Saturday’s play, it was decided that because of the delayed schedule (caused by Thursday’s one-day postponement) and with Monday’s start of the Australian Open, the Grampians Trophy final will not be played. Instead, both of Sunday’s semifinal winners will receive finalist points and prize money.

Aoyama/Shibahara win Yarra Valley Classic doubles

Shuai Aoyama and Ena Shibahara, both of Japan, won the Yarra Valley Classic doubles title on Saturday. The No. 3 seeds defeated Anna Kalinskaya of Russia and Viktoria Kuzmova of Slovakia, 6-3, 6-4 in the final. Earlier, they beat the No. 2 seeds Nicole Melichar of the United States and Demi Schuurs of the Netherlands, 6-7 (5), 7-5, 13-11 to reach the final.

After the final, Shibahara said: “Yeah, it was a really good match. We haven’t really played, like, two matches in a day. So, I think it was both physically and mentally challenging for us, but I think regardless of that, we played pretty well. Our opponents were hitting pretty, like, big shots. I think we just had to play our game and try and be as aggressive as we can. I think we did well.”

Sunday’s order of play