FEET WIDE apart, body bent low at the hips and eyes firmly fixed on the target, she struck a pose of a stealthy leopard about to strike her prey.
The target moved and the Spaniard responded with cat-like agility to meet the 150kmh incoming ball with an explosive forehand. The volley was returned and she replied with a half-turn of her six-foot frame and a high backhand to settle the point.
An imposing figure, Garbiñe Muguruza packs an array of firepower in her arsenal that intimidates opponents. Bookmark that name and keep a mental note on how it’s pronounced. It is Gar-BEE-nyuh—the ‘r’ rolls on the tongue—Muguru-THA. That’s how she says it.
On Monday she disposed of Lucie Safarova in straight sets in her debut at the WTA Finals at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. Tonight, she takes on Angelique Kerber and the smart money is that she’s good for another scalp.
Muguruza is the world No 3, and Kerber and Safarova are the Nos 7 and 9 in that order. On rankings, victories are half-expected of her. But my money is on Muguruza, who turned 22 earlier this month, to go the distance and land the prestigious WTA Finals winner’s trophy on Sunday.
But this isn’t telling the story why she is the Special One destined to take the No 1 spot from Serena Williams. Just when that will happen, a look into her story so far might give a clue.
In January last year, she was a relatively unknown playing in the lower rungs of the WTA at No 58. Compared to the rest of the seven players in Singapore for the WTA Finals they were far higher and most were in the top 10.
Then, something happened. She beat Williams 6-2, 6-2 in the second round of the 2014 French Open in 64 minutes. That was a stunning performance. But her moment under the sun came at Wimbledon in July this year, when she reached the final and met Williams again. This time the world No 1 exacted revenge but it was a hard-fought 6-4, 6-4 victory.
But reaching that final catapulted her from No 20 to the top 10 elite club for the first time at No 9. Winning the China Open earlier this month shot her to No 4.
Muguruza’s rise has been steep and fast. It has been aided by aggression and court craft that whittle down opponents in quick time. She has the assets to get the job done: The well toned muscles in the thighs execute the lightning spurts around the court and the upper arm delivers those explosive service.
But she is still a work in progress and one downside is that she’s a wee bit too opportunistic in the hunt for points. It bore out in the second game against Safarova when she had to dig deep to wrap it up at 7-5. And this is what makes Muguruza dangerous: She’s young and not yet the finished article.
In assessing the Spaniard before the Wimbledon final three months ago, Williams’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said of her rising star: “She is a super dangerous opponent. It’s clear that she was the most dangerous of the three in the semi finals here, along with Serena. Muguruza has everything to play well on grass—the serve, the aggressive returns, the flat strokes, the way she reaches the ball early. She’s on her way up. She doesn’t have much to lose.”
Time will tell when Muguruza starts ruling women’s tennis, and when that happens it will be a long reign. If she wins WTA’s showpiece event on Sunday, it will be her first emphatic notice of intent.