Garbiñe’s year?

Antonio Arenas Mutua News

And who’s to say she won’t? Garbiñe gives the local fans a chance to dream. If there were ever an opportune year for her to open her national account at the Mutua Madrid Open, it is surely 2017. Not only because of the absence through pregnancy of one of the decade’s most dominant forces, Serena Williams (champion in 2012 and 2013), but also because Muguruza has what it takes to fight for the crown. Consolidated among the world’s top ten players, she has shown an ability to beat the best on the planet and the Caja Mágica clay is a stage that, so far, has brought out the best in her.

The Spaniard has the weapons necessary for her game to come together in the Manolo Santana stadium. Her baseline shots are like poison arrows and the violence of her serve is her greatest ally. In addition, Garbiñe comes into the tournament at a moment of maturity, having learned to channel tension and handle nerves. The power of experience strengthens a 23-year-old player who is starting to play like a veteran, and she now feels comfortable on the big stages, like the Mutua Madrid Open. She proved it just a year ago on the Philippe Chatrier, where she outplayed the world number one in the final to lift her first Grand Slam trophy to the Paris sky. It was a fourth Roland Garros title for Spanish tennis.

It is true though that the tournament is something of a thorn in Muguruza’s side, but one that she is more ready than ever to rid herself of: she has never got past the second round, where she bowed out in 2014 (second round vs. Samantha Stosur), in 2015 (second round vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova) and 2016 (second round vs. Irina Camelia Begu), losing the deciding set each time. This season, if she can deal with the pressure of playing at home her chances will be far greater. But Muguruza is not the only one in the spotlight. Spanish tennis has other stars to keep an eye out for.

Among them is Carla Suárez, capable of producing memorable matches, such as her victory over Ana Ivanovic in 2015 that took her to the quarter finals, her best result in the tournament. Despite carrying a shoulder injury, her name always appears among the outsiders. Even more so on Clay. But Carla and Garbiñe are not alone. Lara Arruabarrena and Sara Sorribes will also be in the Mutua Madrid Open’s main draw, thanks to the wildcards they received from the organisers. The player from Tolosa recently reached her best WTA ranking and is now knocking on the door of the world’s top 50 after a final in Bogota and her best performance in a Premier Mandatory tournament (last sixteen in Miami). For her part, Sorribes broke into the world’s best one hundred players this season and now has a place among the top 80, after her first semi-finals at a WTA tournament and leading the Spanish Fed Cup team in April.

Halep defends her crown

Despite where reason points and what the heart suggests, you can never write off Simona Halep, the keeper of the trophy. Despite her 1.68 metres, she has been able to stave off the power of the biggest hitters to establish herself among the best ten players in the world. And at the Mutua Madrid Open her agility and mobility proved key to the Romanian’s victory last season, the most important clay tournament she has conquered.

But her performance last year was certainly not a one off. Halep, who only conceded one set en route to the title, has a record of 11-2 in her last three appearances at the Caja Mágica. As well as her victory, which means she will have to defend the 1,000 points at stake, the player from Constanta made it to her first Premier Mandatory final three seasons ago, in 2014. That time she beat off one of the tournament’s champions, Petra Kvitova, in the semis, before stumbling at the final hurdle against Maria Sharapova.

Maria is back

The Russian will be one of the biggest stories at this year’s Mutua Madrid Open, which has granted one of its final-draw wildcards to Maria Sharapova. She is back in 2017 to continue a love affair that started four seasons ago with her first final, where she lost to Serena Williams. Since then, she has won practically everything she has played in, with a total of 15 victories in 17 matches. Only the American and Svetlana Kuznetsova in the 2015 semi-finals have managed to defeat her on this stage.

Sharapova, who is one of the six champions to feature in the tournament’s roll of honour, returns to Madrid after a two-year absence to try and build on her impressive record. As the years have gone by she has upped her game on the clay with three French Open finals in the last five seasons, as well as triumphing at 10 tournaments on the surface of the fifteen she has contested since 2010.

Plenty of hopefuls

Four other names will be on everybody’s lips: Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova, Dominika Cibulkova and Agnieszka Radwanska. Although they will have to deal with the curse that haunts the seeds season after season in the early rounds, and some of them have already felt its consequences at the Mutua Madrid Open.

Cibulkova comes into the tournament having established herself in the WTA top ten and this year she will be defending the final she graced last season. The Slovak managed to turn around a record of three defeats and just one victory in her previous visits to Madrid, to complete the best week of her career on clay, upsetting Radwanska in the opening round.

Aga is another of the players with the potential to shine on the clay, but she barely boasts any results on the surface. Only two of the 30 finals she has played in her career came on the red stuff. In the Caja Mágica she has been on the verge of the final twice (2012, 2014) and this time she will be trying to remove a thorn from her side after a premature exit in 2016.

A member of the tour’s elite, Kerber will be trying to get out of a rut she fell into three seasons ago. The German’s last win here came back in 2013, when she reached the quarters (her best result at the tournament). Since then, Carolina Garcia, Samantha Stosur and Barbora Strycova have prevented her from notching up a victory on the Spanish clay.

The last of these four players is Karolina Pliskova. Although it is true that the Czech player, Spain’s principal executioner in the Fed Cup quarter finals, has based her growth on tour on hard courts, she will be one of the players to watch in Madrid.

Legends never fade

The early season has provided several reminders for those with short-term memory loss; the best keep coming. Illustrious names from the tour are back bidding for their place among the WTA elite. At nearly 38 years of age, a 2010 Mutua Madrid Open finalist, Venus Williams is flirting with the top 10 after fighting her way into the final of the Australian Open early this year.

Caroline Wozniacki is also shaking the dust off her racquet as she makes firm strides towards the upper end of the rankings. The Danish ex-world number one, who was a finalist in the tournament’s first year in the Caja Mágica (2009), reached the quarters on her last visit to the Spanish capital in 2015.

Svetlana Kuznetsova has her own special place among the veterans, as she was a champion at Roland Garros a decade ago. In Madrid, despite the first-round defeat last year, she was close to the title two seasons back when she lost out to Kvitova in the decider. The Russian, who is only younger than Serena in the top 10, will be hoping to reach the latter stages of the tournament once again.

More experience comes in the form of Samantha Stosur and her powerful serve, the indefatigable Roberta Vinci and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who is enjoying something of a renaissance, who all threaten the Caja Mágica clay. The stage is set, the time has come.

 

Carla always steps up

Although her start to the season was hampered by injuries, Carla Suárez is always a player to follow at the Mutua Madrid Open. She is the active Spanish player with the best record in the Caja Mágica, after the quarter-finals she played in 2015, where she was sent packing by Serena Williams. This season she will be looking for her tenth victory, having racked up a 9-6 record in her six previous appearances.

New faces

Little by little the oldest of the players are starting to make way for the young guns to push through into the elite. This season names such as Madison Keys (22), Elina Svitolina (22), Yulia Putintseva (22), Daria Gavrilova (23) and Eugenie Bouchard (23), among others, will seek to demonstrate their maturity at the Mutua Madrid Open. From this quintet, the Australian Gavrilova was the tournament’s surprise package in 2016, reaching the quarters in her first appearance.