On Wednesday in Mason, Ohio, Garbine Muguruza became a Simpsons meme, the one with the character entering the room and then walking right back out of the room without stopping.
Muguruza was sidelined by injury in San Jose and then Montreal. Rust was certainly something to fear in her Wednesday match against Lesia Tsurenko, but when the Spaniard rolled through the first set, 6-2, it seemed she had reset her game to a certain degree. It didn’t mean she was all the way back, but it did mean she could assert herself against a player she was expected to beat. More importantly, Muguruza seemed well on her way to earning another match, which is exactly what she needs to fine-tune her game before the U.S. Open. Muguruza didn’t need to defend her 2017 Cincinnati championship to have a productive week in Ohio, but she did need to play at least two matches and ideally three, to work off the inactivity of the past month and recall the rhythm of getting up in the morning, practicing, playing a match, cooling down, fueling up, and preparing for the next day.
Muguruza lost her edge — and the second set — in her clash with Tsurenko, but when she bolted to a 3-0 lead in the third set, it appeared that she had gone through a valley and had fought her way out of it. For one of the more inconsistent, mercurial, and entirely unpredictable players on the WTA Tour, being able to survive rough patches is something Muguruza needs to experience. She needs that feeling of resilience, the conscious awareness that she can overcome, persevere, and survive her battles with herself. She is only 24 years old, still with the vast majority of her career (likely — there are no guarantees) ahead of her. It is not a profound waste of a career for a player of Muguruza’s talents to need a few extra years to put all the pieces together.
However, if we are still here at age 26 or 27, Muguruza might begin to sense that she has let something special slip away.
She is not at that point, but she needs to begin to find a way to bake consistency into her way of being if she wants to reach the higher plateau she is capable of attaining.
On Wednesday, she definitely endured a setback in that pursuit. The problem was not necessarily that she lost her 3-0 lead in the third against Tsurenko; the problem was HOW she lost, drowning in a sea of her own errors on a humid and (soon-to-be) rainy day in Ohio.
She didn’t survive the second-set lull; another lower, deeper, darker valley ambushed her.
This is why Muguruza has ceded ground to Sloane Stephens as the volatile but powerful player who is now expected to rise up at major tournaments — not with regularity, but with more frequency than the many other WTA players whose portfolios are also marked by inconsistency.
Muguruza has to find a way of saying goodbye many days after saying hello… instead of making this cameo appearance in Cincinnati and in other tour locales.