Looking like a stricken tennis player — and being struck down — when facing Barbora Strycova is something Garbine Muguruza can’t seem to avoid. Strycova owns six top-five wins in her career, and she can now claim three of them against the Spaniard in a head-to-head which now sits at 4-3 in favor of the 32-year-old Czech veteran.
One will look at Thursday’s second-round match in the Birmingham Classic and reasonably conclude that an elite player shouldn’t be so continuously bothered by a player who regularly resides outside the top 20. Having the occasional off day against Strycova is one thing, but Muguruza now trails the head-to-head series in seven meetings, which is not a gigantic sample size, but isn’t microscopic, either.
Exasperating? That’s Muguruza. Yet, it shouldn’t be surprising. This is who she is as a tennis player. For the moment, one must accept this — not in the sense of approving of it, but in acknowledging reality and not trying to push back against it.
This next paragraph is part of the complicated picture Muguruza paints on the tour: It would be unwise to use a grass-court crash-and-burn in a Wimbledon warm-up tournament as evidence that Muguruza is unprepared to defend her title at the All England Club. This is the player we have come to know and expect, someone who will drift through some matches at lower-tier tournaments but then turn on the jets at either Roland Garros or Wimbledon. Muguruza showed some of her considerable tennis prowess in Paris, but turned into her mercurial self in a disjointed French Open semifinal loss to Simona Halep. That rated as a plot twist if only because, when previously placed in major semifinals, Muguruza had never lost (3-0).
What that loss means, though — and what this defeat at the hands of Strycova magnifies — is that if 2018 ever held out hope of becoming a new dawn for Garbine, a year in which she strung together strong results from week to week, we have arrived at a point where that dream is almost entirely dead. Maybe Muguruza will stomp through Montreal, Cincinnati and New York, but remember this: Muguruza has never made a major hardcourt semifinal. She is, as Tumaini Carayol has said, a “natural surface slam specialist,” best known for elevating at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. In Australia and New York, she has lacked answers.
I would trust Muguruza to do well at Wimbledon this year, especially since she has made one — and only one — major final pear year since 2015. If she flourished at Roland Garros, she faltered at Wimbledon, and vice-versa. If she is going to make her “one final per year” at the biggest tournaments on offer, Wimbledon will need to be the one…
… which is why the upcoming fortnight at SW19 will be so important for her.
Defending a champion’s points from 2017 is its own separate concern. The big story for Muguruza as she exits Birmingham early is that if she can’t make the final at Wimbledon, she will be looking at a calendar year without a signature achievement. The tradeoff for Muguruza has been simple the past two years: In exchange for her volatility, she bags one of the most significant titles in tennis. Muguruza’s volatility is still as pronounced as it has ever been… but if she doesn’t make Championship Saturday (July 14) at the All England Club, this 24-year-old star with so much upside and potential might begin to doubt herself at a level she hasn’t done in three years.
Owning two major titles does remove a lot of pressure from an athlete — Elina Svitolina and Karolina Pliskova would LOVE to have Muguruza’s problems right now — but pressure is relative.
If Muguruza is to become the kind of player who wins 10 or 12 majors instead of only four or five, this next Wimbledon tournament could acquire hinge-point-level significance.
That is the bottom line as the Spaniard leaves Birmingham with a familiar sting administered by Strycova.