Two in-form players who have proven track records in terms of performing at their highest level at Majors clashed in Rod Laver Arena to start a blockbuster Sunday at the Australian Open. Naomi Osaka, one of the top favorites to lift the trophy next weekend, survived a very, very tough test by defeating Garbine Muguruza 4-6 6-4 7-5 after saving two match points at 3-5 down in the final set.
Prior to the match, in our bite-size Tennis with an Accent preview podcast, Matt Zemek and I discussed the match in detail and felt that Muguruza’s best chances rested in getting a lot of first serves into Osaka’s body, and more importantly, working the middle of the court deep in order to avoid Osaka’s lethal accelerations from both wings, when she catches balls within the boundaries of the singles line from the corners of the court.
Sure enough, playing deep down the middle appeared to be an integral part of Garbine’s plan A. And she executed it to perfection for about a set a and a half. Stat-loving tennis fans may look at the unforced error stats for the first set and conclude that Osaka played a bad first set because she made 14 unforced errors in the set as opposed to 6 by Muguruza. As is the case, there is always more to the story than what sheer numbers say.
Without getting into too many details about the other facets of the game (which were fairly equally divided because Osaka also made 13 winners as opposed to Muguruza’s 5, and the rest of the statistical numbers were almost identical), let’s focus on how Muguruza executed her successful rally patterns.
Muguruza did not just hit to the middle of the court repeatedly. She also mixed in some 1-2 punch winners, using her wide serve. She hit out on several second-serve returns, hit or miss. And she mainly used the deep-ball-to-the-middle selectively, especially when she had to rush to one of the corners to the court to retrieve an acceleration by Osaka.
To give two examples out of several, take the 30-40 point on Muguruza’s serve when she is down 0-1 in the second game of the match. In that point, Osaka drives a great backhand cross-court backhand that puts Garbine in a defensive spot on the ad side. She scrambles that shot back deep to the middle of the court, making Osaka step back to hit the next shot (because she had moved into the court after the previous good backhand) which lands short and Muguruza neutralizes the rally. Osaka tries to reload in the next shot and makes the error.
As a second example, consider the 30-30 point again on Muguruza’s serve at 1-2. Naomi drives a flat and deep forehand pushing Muguruza back and the Spaniard responds with another deep backhand to the middle of the court, neutralizing the rally again and giving Osaka no angle. Osaka misses the next backhand wide trying to go for the line from where such angle does not exist. You want two more examples for good measure? See the first two points of the 2-3 game.
In any case, folks, 8 of the 14 unforced errors made by Osaka in the first set came from the middle of the court on neutralizing groundies of this type by Muguruza! So, yes, while they were unforced, per se, they were also the fruits of the tactical labor implemented by Muguruza. And Muguruza won another four points in the set on winners that she hit after having neutralized the rally at prior moment in those four points thanks to a neutralizing shot the middle. Make that 12 points won on that game plan. That’s four games for lovers of math.
To give you an idea of how difficult a task that is, to keep such a delicate game plan going, keep in mind that Muguruza has a very limited target area to hit to still count on serving well, and even still depend on a couple of errors here and there by Osaka. Any deviation from that meticulous pattern, and chances were that Osaka would gain the momentum. For that example, just look at the 2-2 game in which Muguruza did deviate and hit shots to Osaka’s forehand and backhand corner without pushing her to the outside enough. Observe the first and last points that end with Naomi’s thunder-strike winners. Muguruza had to take all those factors into account and punctiliously execute the plan.
One of the dangers, out of many, was also not to fall into a pattern of hitting too many deep balls to the middle in order to keep Osaka away from adjusting to it. Too much of a good thing can backfire as it allows the opponent to adjust to the pattern. This is where things went sour for Muguruza in the second set.
After getting the early break lead in the second set, serving at 2-1, Muguruza went up 30-0 on yet another error by Osaka on a deep shot to the middle by Garbine. Then, following an error and her only double fault of the second set, Garbine found herself at 30-30. On that point, for the first time in the match, she did what I call an “overkill” of a good thing. Garbine hit five shots in a row to the middle of the court, with Osaka essentially getting her feet set every single time and accelerating her shots. Notice the distinction: this is *not* the same as the neutralizing shot deep to the middle that I have described so far above. On those, Osaka was not necessarily standing in the middle of the court waiting for them. She was for the most part recovering herself back to the middle or having to back step thinking Muguruza would land it short from a defensive position. In this rally, Osaka got to stand and build rhythm and confidence on five shots in a row, expecting them to come to that spot.
The rally ended on a winner by Naomi, giving her a break point, and you bet that rally also chalked one up for her in the confidence column and chipped away from Garbine’s after leading 30-0, because she missed a backhand sitter from inside the court to lose her serve. Two points later, at 0-15, 2-2, Muguruza once again scrambled three shots back to the middle of the court in succession and that one also ended on a backhand down-the-line winner by Osaka when Muguruza attempted a maligned forehand undercut that fell short.
The match was now leveled not only on the scoreboard but also on every other aspect of the match. Osaka was less error-prone on those patterns and Muguruza was able to stay in the second (until the 4-5 game) for a while only thanks to her first-serve success and low unforced error count. Because the winning plan A was no longer clicking on all cylinders, as the first point of the 4-4 game gave another glaring example of Muguruza hitting too many shots to the middle in succession (four in a row), another point that ended with a forehand winner by Osaka.
On the 4-5 game, despite an ace on the second point and two amazing first serves to save the first two set points by Muguruza, Osaka put out her best game of the match, featuring zero unforced errors on her part, a ridiculous backhand winner to go up 15-30, and a stellar lunging forehand return to close out the set. It was not Muguruza who lost her serve. Osaka ripped the break away from her opponent.
So, I will say what many tennis fans already know:
This is nothing new. This is why Osaka is so hard to beat. This is why she is a champion.
Muguruza played with an almost-perfect game plan through two sets, and yet she found herself at one set each. Unfortunately for her, she would play another near-perfect set and still come out on the losing side.
Having abandoned the first-set plan for the most part, and not having played badly at all anyway, Muguruza started playing aggressively in the final set, putting on display her acceleration prowess, the potent brand of tennis that marked her big titles in the past. She earned the break at 2-2 on a double fault by Osaka (yes, she is human too, and Garbine was bringing some serious heat during rallies at that point in the match), and protected it with great success until 5-3. Considering how well she served in her last two service games, it would have almost been preferable from her perspective if Osaka held without problem so that she could focus on her serving game at 5-4 with no distractions. But, at 5-3 on Osaka’s serve, she suddenly earned two match points at 15-40.
Osaka saved the first match point with an ace, and the second one thanks to a deep forehand cross-court that squeezed an error out of Muguruza. A forehand winner down-the-line and an ace secured the hold for Osaka.
Being so close to victory on her opponent’s serve may have had an impact on Muguruza who had played, until then, flawless serving games in the set (thus, my point above about wondering if she would have been better off with Osaka holding serve without trouble at 5-3). While she made 7 out of 8 first serves in that 5-4 game, none had the velocity and placement of those in the first five serving games in the set. Osaka got all of them back in play without much trouble (stunning detail in my opinion, considering she was winning two or three free points per game on her serves prior to that) and dominated rallies to break back.
The last three games must have felt like a miasmic blur to Muguruza as she won only two points after 5-5 and lost a match in which she had a working Plan A, followed by a working Plan B, and played outstanding tennis for three sets. As was the case at the end of the second set, she did not necessarily lose the set herself. She made three unforced errors by my count in those last three games.
Osaka, for her part, in that same crunch-time period of three games, struck four winners, made zero unforced errors, and forced Muguruza into impossible situations in a some first-rate rallies (see for example, how punishing the first point of the 6-5 game must have felt to Muguruza).
This is nothing new! This is why Osaka is so hard to beat. This is why she is a champion.