An Extraordinary Finish Lifts Muguruza In Dubai

Garbiñe Muguruza (photo: DDF Tennis)

DUBAI/WASHINGTON, March 12, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

On a 31º (C) late-winter afternoon on Centre Court at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium complex, Spain’s World No. 16 Garbiñe Muguruza came into her third career Dubai semifinal against 18th-ranked Elise Mertens of Belgium bidding to reach her third WTA final out of five contested in 2021. It became evident from the outset that the ninth-seeded Muguruza was in the mood to quickly – and cleanly – strike at everything Mertens had to offer in her previously reliable arsenal. She was in a perpetual state of being at the ready.

Although, Mertens was able to hold off six match points against Muguruza, the determined Spaniard channeled her focus and energy and pulled out a 6-4, 7-6 (5) victory in two hours and nine minutes to reach back-to-back finals in the Doha-Dubai double to go along with reaching the title match of the Yarra Valley Classic in Melbourne last month.

On Saturday, Muguruza will face unseeded and 63rd-ranked Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic, who beat No. 54 Jil Teichmann of Switzerland, 7-5, 6-2.

From the beginning, Muguruza broke the Belgian Mertens in her first two service games as she freely hit winners from both wings. A turning point came at 15-0 in the fifth game when Muguruza authoritatively struck a forehand winner that capped a 21-shot rally en route to a terrific hold that put her ahead 4-1. After a series of holds, Mertens saved one set point with a forehand down-the-line winner, then broke Muguruza to get back on serve. Facing her second break point of the ninth game, Muguruza netted the 15th shot of a spirited back-and-forth rally. However, in the ensuing game, Muguruza put away the 52-minute opening set on her second set-point chance at 30-40 with a stunning backhand winner off Mertens’ second serve. Muguruza used her power and readiness to hit 13 first-set winners while Mertens committed 11 unforced errors.

The start of the second set was characterized by a series of easy service holds by Muguruza, while Mertens had to fight hard to keep from being broken. Ahead 4-3, Muguruza continued to be aggressive on her return games. She gained a 0-40 break-point and broke Mertens with a demonstrative forehand winner to go ahead 5-3. While the finish line came into focus for Muguruza, Mertens wasn’t quite ready to give up. She continued to fight for every point, saving one match point with phenomenal instinct in winning an 18-shot rally with a superb forehand winner. Then, Mertens displayed great mental strength in breaking Muguruza for the second time in the match after Muguruza shanked a backhand return that abruptly ended a four-shot rally.

In the next game, Mertens dug herself into a deep hole, down 15-40. However, she immediately regrouped and saved three more break points – all unforced errors on backhand returns by Muguruza. Finally, on the 10th point of the game, Muguruza hit another backhand unforced error that landed wide. Suddenly, it was 5-all, and Mertens was back in business. Immediately, she consolidated the break with authority to surge ahead 6-5. She won a number of exciting, long rallies and proved the maxim that it ain’t over till it’s over.

Ever the fighter, Muguruza broke back, winning the 12th game on her second break-point chance to redeem herself. It forced a tie break as the semifinal reached the two-hour mark.

Mertens, who saved three match points the day before to prevail in her three-set quarterfinal victory against Jessica Pegula, now had saved four against Muguruza to keep her hopes alive. Could she reprise her performance and save any more match points?

As it happened, yes she could. Mertens saved two additional match points during the second-set tie break, to narrow Murguruza’s lead from 6-3 to 6-5. However, the seventh time finally got the job done for Muguruza. She reacted instinctively at the net in an engaging ping-pong, back-and-forth rally, finally hitting a brilliant overhead winner on her ninth shot. Muguruza’s victory ended two hours and nine minutes of highly-entertaining tennis.

“I tried to stay in the match. She’s a very powerful player,” said Mertens, whose record stands at 11-2 following her third tournament of the season. “I tried to get to as many balls as I could today.

“I served better today than yesterday throughout the first set. I’m pretty pleased about the level I played. I don’t think she really dominated. I was able to get some balls back to get the point going and to try to dominate myself. There’s a lot I can learn from this match.”

While Muguruza recovered from a set down to win her only previous encounter with Mertens, at the 2016 US Open, this time, she was steadier overall, relying upon her potently-dangerous backhand side. The Spaniard got the job done this time in straight sets. Indeed, it was an extraordinary conclusion to the first semifinal of the day.

“It was a very tough match; tough two sets,” said Muguruza in describing for Tennis TourTalk the atmosphere during the heat-of-the moment battle the moment during her virtual press conference held in English and Spanish. “Long points, a lot of rallies. It was a very difficult match. …

“[Elise] modified the way in which she was playing; I did as well. I had to adapt because the momentum of the match changed.

“I tried to stick to my game plan, even though it’s not working for a few moments. I still believe I will get there. That’s the way I have to play.

“I felt [Elise] was very good on defense; she brought her magic, her slice, her tricky balls. I didn’t’ think I played very badly on the match points. It’s just those tough points never came to my side.”

And what was the mindset of Muguruza, a two-time Grand Slam champion, who is used to playing under pressure circumstances? “I’m playing well. Sooner or later, I will convert the match point,” she said. “I didn’t lose concentration or become too irritated that she saved so many match points.

“At the end, I found a way.”

Krejcikova reaches her biggest WTA singles final

Barbora Krejcikova saved 10 of the 11 break points she faced from lefty Jil Teichmann and won her fifth consecutive straight-set match en route to earning a berth in the biggest WTA singles final of her career in her Dubai debut.

The 63rd ranked Krejcikova from the Czech Republic beat and 54th-ranked ranked Teichmann of Switzerland, 7-5, 6-2, in one hour and 44 minutes, to reach her second career final following her runner-up finish in Nurnberg in 2017.

“I think I’m really proud that today I wasn’t really playing my best,” Krejcikova told Tennis TourTalk, during her press conference in both English and Czech. “Jil didn’t really let me play my best, but I’m really happy I was able to save the two set points in the first set. Then, I found my rhythm a little bit better and I’m happy I was able to close it.”

Neither of the unseeded, in-form players had dropped a set coming into their second career meeting – and Teichmann had been solid on her serve all week long. However, that would soon change. Krejcikova saved two set points on her serve to level the opening set at 5-all. Then, broke Teichmann and consolidated the break to garner the first set.

Later, following some lengthy games highlighted by a series of back-and-forth breaks of service, Teichmann saved two match points on Krejcikova’s serve to prolong what would be the inevitable outcome. However, the Czech played solid tennis down the stretch. She won the last four games to close the door on the semifinal and did it on her third match-point opportunity.

“Winning match point, I’m so relieved and to be able to close it,” said Krejcikova, who improved to 29-16 in WTA tour-level singles since the start of 2019. She let out a joyful scream in her native Czech language to celebrate. “It feels good after fighting and trying to win every single point and, [when] you get match point, you can enjoy that you won and celebrate.”

Krejcikova finished with 21 winners on the evening, which was well ahead of Teichmann’s nine. She also broke the Swiss No. 2’s serve four times.

When Tennis TourTalk mentioned to Teichmann that Krejcikova saved 10 of 11 break points, she nodded her head in agreement that it played a big difference in the outcome.

“Yeah, I think that it was one of the important things,” Teichmann said. “I wasn’t able to convert many of my break points. In other words, I didn’t take my chances. I am a bit unhappy with that.”

Although the loss dropped Teichmann’s win-loss record to 10-5, which includes back-to-back semifinal finishes in Adelaide and Dubai, she will move up at least 10 places in the rankings as she inches closer to cracking the Top 40 barrier.

“Maybe right now, my face might not show it, but in a few hours, I will be happy with my overall performance over the past few weeks,” said Teichmann, who is on the entry list for next week’s WTA 500 event in St. Petersburg, Russia. “I hope I can keep it going.”

Friday’s Dubai DFTC results

Saturday’s Dubai DFTC order of play

News & noteworthy

• Unseeded Xu Yifan and Yang Zhaoxuan, both from China, advanced to Saturday’s doubles final with their ninth victory of the season, a 6-3, 7-5 win over No. 5 seeds Timea Babos of Hungary and Veronika Kudermetova from Russia in an hour and 23 minutes.

The veteran Chinese duo – Xu is ranked 9th and into her 20th WTA doubles final while Yang is ranked 57th and into her 11th – have played in all five WTA tournaments this year. Next, they will meet No. 8 seeds Alexa Guarachi of Chile and Darija Jurak from Croatia, who beat unseeded Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Jessica Pegula, both from the United States, 6-4, 6-3, in 70 minutes.

Garbiñe Muguruza is the fifth player this century to reach the finals at both Doha and Dubai in the Middle East Double. The others: Current and future Hall of Fame-worthy Martina Hingis, Justine Henin, Caroline Wozniacki and Svetlana Kuznetsova.

• At World No. 63, Barbora Krejcikova has become the lowest-ranked singles finalist in Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships history. Previously, the lowest-ranked finalist was Virginie Razzano, who was ranked No. 58 when lost 6-4, 6-2 to Venus Williams in 2009.

What they’re saying

Barbora Krejcikova on her title opponent, Garbiñe Muguruza: “She’s such a good player. Right now, I think she’s one of the top players at the moment. She played really well in Australia, she played really well last week in Doha. She’s playing really well here. She’s has more experience [in Grand Slams] than I do, even though I have some Grand Slams as well, but only in doubles. No matter the result, I’m just going to go out and really enjoy it – play my best tennis – and see what she’s actually doing. I want to learn some things – bring my best game – and just do the best I can and enjoy everything.”