“I don’t really have the champion mentality, yet, which is like someone that can deal with not playing 100 percent,” Osaka said, after her loss to 15-year-old Coco Gauff in the third round of The Australian Open, The New York Times reported. “I always have wanted to be like that, but I guess I still have a long way to go.”
The same day Osaka questioned her mental capacity, Serena Williams exited in the third round. The champion of champions, including males and females, lost to Wang Qiang, who Williams dismissed in a couple snappy sets at the U.S. Open last year.
Williams wasn’t about to blame her mindset for her lost to Wang. “I lost that match,” she said, simply pointing to her game. It was her earliest loss in Melbourne in 14 years.
These losses gave the green light to other competitors. Garbine Muguruza, unseeded at a major for the first time in three years yet a two-time Grand Slam champion and American Sofia Kenin, seeded No. 14, stepped on the gas, threw risk to the wind and went for it. No one saw this matchup as a likely final, though.
Muguruza ousted No. 3 seed Simona Halep in Thursday’s semifinal, an over two-hour tussle. The Venezuelan native won on her fourth match point: 7-6(8), 7-5. And Kenin broke the hearts of Australian tennis fans as she ousted world number one and top seed Australian Ashleigh Barty: 7-6(6), 7-5.
“We didn’t know who was going to win that first set; it was nip and tuck,” Muguruza told the press afterward. “I knew it [first set] was key to the match because of the circumstances and the weather. Whoever was going to be stronger was going to get it. So I stayed solid there and took my chances at the end.”
Part of Muguruza’s strength to convert aspirations to results are innate, which could be said about all the women competing on the tour. They don’t make major tournaments if they don’t have some wild and crazy drive to win. Good relationships with a coach, though, certainly can make the needed difference to win big points, given the reality that all players have the strokes, strategies and technique to win. Coaches support the player’s mind, as well.
Conchita Martinez, Muguruza’s coach, has watched her confidence build over the winter and the weeks before the Australian Open got underway.
“She’s very, very aggressive as she was when she was playing her best tennis,” Martinez said, as the WTA reported. “She’s getting to the balls early enough. She’s holding her ground really well, accelerating, finishing at the net a lot.” Martinez believes that getting to the net is key but first her “all-round game has to be on point.”
Knowing when and how to come in has to be learned, Martinez emphasized. The player has to be confident, comfortable and aggressive. “In our mind, it was very clear that’s her type of game.”
Muguruza won 20/30 net points against Halep and had 39 winners. That spells confidence, a quality of the mind, especially during a major semifinal against another Grand Slam champion in the hunt for her third major title.
“I wasn’t thinking I was down,” Muguruza told reporters afterward, when asked what she was thinking after slipping down a break in the second set. “At some point you’ll have your opportunities. I was fighting with all the energy I had.” The ability to move from point to point without losing enthusiasm and purpose is yet another key feature of a champion’s mind.
Muguruza played three-set matches the first two rounds to pass Qualifier and American Shelby Rogers and Australian Ajla Tomlijanovic. In the next three rounds Muguruza defeated No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina, No. 9 seed Kiki Bertens and No. 30 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in straight sets.
To show how tough Muguruza’s mind acts at major tournaments look at the difference in head-to-head competition between her and Svitolina at WTA events compared to grand slams. Muguruza dominates their major meetings. In fact out of twelve four were staged at majors. Muguruza won all of them.
Muguruza is the first unseeded player to make the women’s singles final in Melbourne since 2010. “I didn’t think about it too much,” Muguruza began. “I knew whoever I faced it was going to be tough. I’m happy not to be in the spotlight.”
This is Muguruza’s and Kenin’s first final in Melbourne.
“It’s tough to say what is the little bit of difference,” Muguruza continued when asked about what has made the difference in her matches in Melbourne this year. “Maybe structuring better the points and using my weapons. It’s literally a half-second or one shot the difference. It’s very delicate and also about the confidence.”
One thing for sure, Muguruza believes in herself, a necessary component of a champion’s mind. “I believe in myself that I have what it takes to play in these types of matches at this stage. For now … keep it calm.”
A champion’s mind could then be a calculus of finding and putting to use a mix of elements that helps assure greatness on a tennis court most consistently.
Many champions’ names come to mind that fit that definition. One is 21-year-old Sofia Kenin. The five-foot-seven Russian native’s rise in the rankings to her current No. 12 accelerated in 2019, when she won three singles titles and two doubles titles. She began to play U.S.T.A. tournaments when she was seven. And she is the first American, other than the Williams sisters, to reach the Australian Open final since Lindsey Davenport in 2005. Kenin’s biggest win has to be her defeat of Serena Williams at the 2019 French Open
“I know people haven’t really paid attention much to me in the past,” Yahoo News reported. I had to establish myself, and I have. I’m not shocked. It’s a dream come true for me. Of course, I believed in myself.”
The women’s final is Saturday, February 1, at 3:30 a.m. Eastern time.