The possibility and reality of tennis, in all their tenuousness and glory, are attached to the idea that on any given day, a player who might not be having the best season can wake up and play at a very high level, derailing a more credentialed opponent.
This is what happened at Wimbledon earlier this year, when Alison Van Uytvanck played spirited and sublime tennis to dethrone the reigning Wimbledon champion, Garbine Muguruza. Given that Muguruza’s two best majors have been Wimbledon and Roland Garros, the loss — at the time — seemed likely to usher in a period in which Muguruza would struggle. She did win Cincinnati last year, but that tournament was shaken and tossed about by rain and a highly imbalanced schedule. (This year, the two Cincy finalists, Simona Halep and Kiki Bertens, failed to escape week one of the U.S. Open. Cincinnati is generally not reliable as a U.S. Open indicator if viewed through the prism of the past four tennis seasons.)
Muguruza has played better at the majors than at other tournaments, and at the majors, she plays well on the natural surfaces, poorly on hardcourts.
Sure enough, the Spaniard has failed to find form since her disappointing loss to an inspired Van Uytvanck.
Now, in the WTA’s Asian autumn, both Muguruza and the player she lost to at Wimbledon are trying to find a jump-start to their tennis. They are in search of an engine which can roar with potency and effectiveness. These are “search engine” tennis stories, and they are converging in China.
Muguruza was not happy with a 6-0, 6-4 win over Ekaterina Makarova in Beijing on Monday. In the first set, Muguruza dished out a bagel, but she still hit only one winner against nine unforced errors. Makarova simply fell out of the wrong side of the bed, crashing into a performance in which nothing went right. Makarova also hit just one winner in that first set but coughed up 18 unforced errors, making only 35 percent of her first serves. It was one of those days for Makarova. Muguruza was not especially sharp. The two-time major champion — like any accomplished athlete — would like to win by dint of her own excellence, not as the result of an opponent’s struggles. She spoke after the match about her desire to find her best tennis. Searching for an engine, indeed:
"At some point, it's going to start turning", says Garbine Muguruza about her results and the confidence she's keeping in herself and in her game. pic.twitter.com/2J7C1zbMRe
— China Open (@ChinaOpen) October 1, 2018
The fact that Muguruza was not pleased with her straight-set win should not be seen as surprising. It also shouldn’t be seen as a negative. This is a player with a high ceiling who knows she is leaving something on the table, and shouldn’t. She is trying to motivate herself and tell herself that current results aren’t meeting her standard. That is an appropriate response to a difficult year on tour. Something would be wrong if Muguruza DIDN’T show visible frustrations on court, even in victory.
What is worth noting here is that as we shift to Van Uytvanck, Muguruza might inwardly wonder why her form in Beijing didn’t rise to a higher level against Makarova.
Recall that a week ago in Wuhan, Muguruza mashed Van Uytvanck 6-4, 6-0, surrendering as many games as she did against Makarova. Given that Garbine was able to turn the tables relative to Wimbledon against AVU, she might have felt that she was about to go on a roll and rediscover her best tennis. Avenging a stinging loss often feels good for an athlete, and while this is pure speculation, I’m sure that a part of Muguruza is wondering why a decisive win over Van Uytvanck didn’t translate into a steady improvement in form. With time running out in the 2018 season, it should not be hard to see why Muguruza might be anxious and a little impatient.
Now let’s focus on Van Uytvanck.
The outlook is not pretty since Wimbledon, when the Belgian made the round of 16 and Manic Monday. In the summer and autumnal hardcourt seasons on two separate continents, AVU has won only one main-draw match, in Montreal against 18-year-old Sofya Zhuk. Some draws have been difficult, such as Muguruza in Wuhan, but when given a better draw — Jamie Loeb in the first round of Cincinnati — she got injured and had to retire in the third set. It has been a Murphy’s Law second half of the season for AVU, who lost in Beijing to Katerina Siniakova on Monday. Siniakova is an erratic player, but one who has managed to dig out a number of tough wins in prolonged matches. Professionals have to get to a point where they can win those scratchy matches, and Van Uytvanck is immersed in a battle to figure out that particular problem.
AVU can’t worry about losing to the likes of Muguruza. That will happen. Before getting to a point where she can beat Muguruza again, Van Uytvanck has to regain trust in her game… which is what Muguruza is trying to do in her own context.
Two women whose paths keep intersecting are united in their search for a new and powerful engine. Garbine Muguruza and Alison Van Uytvanck don’t inhabit the same levels of talent and credentials, but they do share the basic realities which apply to professional tennis players at all levels.
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