MELBOURNE, Australia - No.3 seed Garbiñe Muguruza maintained her perfect record in Australian Open first round matches, coming through a tight match against an unorthodox opponent in wildcard Jessika Ponchet 6-4, 6-3.
On paper, it was one of the biggest mismatches of the round. Ponchet, a Slam debutante who has plied her trade on the ITF Pro Circuit since 2011, had never even faced a Top 100 player before, nor had she played a WTA main draw match before.
Yet the gulf didn't show. The Frenchwoman had started the year in good form, scoring the second best win of her career over World No.159 Anna Kalinskaya in the first round of the ITF $25,000 event in Playford, and currently sits at a career high of No.256 herself. If Muguruza had any ideas of an easy night after starting the match with a break of serve, Ponchet put an end to them in the second game by breaking back immediately.
With a one-handed backhand well disguised by an unusual takeback, a flat forehand reminiscent of the great Kimiko Date and a ton of crafty variety up her sleeve, Ponchet forced Muguruza to raise her own level as she fended off break points in her next two service games to stick with the Spaniard.
It clearly impressed the two-time Slam champion, who told reporters afterwards: "Her style of game, it was very different. She put me in trouble in a lot of situations."
Ponchet had been an unknown quantity for her opponent, who was unable to research her as extensively as she wanted. "I didn't know a lot about her, I couldn't find a lot about her," admitted the 24-year-old. "But she came out, she had a very good serve. Just unpredictable shots, I would say. That kept me a little bit guessing a lot of times... Like she played with me, I never thought she can be a wildcard."
The Wimbledon champion has not had the most positive warm-ups for the Australian Open, retiring with cramps against Aleksandra Krunic in her opening Brisbane International match and being forced to withdraw injured from the Sydney International at the quarterfinal stage, but she showed no ill effects in rising to the challenge. Sixteen winners and four aces in the first set illustrated that her power was in fine fettle, but her willingness to come forward proved key to hitting through Ponchet's dinks and slices: Muguruza won 10 of her 15 points at net.
Going after Ponchet's second serve in particular - the 21-year-old would win just 40% of the points behind her second delivery today - Muguruza broke through in the seventh game, and though she had to fend off a break point while serving for the set, sealed it with another swashbuckling drive volley.
The second set found the wildcard taking a leaf out of her opponent's book. Making her way forward every time she could, including serve-and-volleying on several occasions, Ponchet was able to show off yet another facet of her game at net. Winning her first eight points of the set in the forecourt, she proved able to get on top with firm, deep cuts at the ball as well as feathery angles and, in the final game, a spectacular reflex drop volley.
But in the second set, Ponchet's inexperience was beginning to show at last. Despite tangling Muguruza up with first short, low balls and then high lobs, a double fault and then a netted forehand proved costly in handing over the first break of the set. Meanwhile, last year's quarterfinalist gave Ponchet nothing on serve, winning 73% of her first serve points and 80% behind her second serve.
In the eighth game, a second double fault (brought on by an ill-timed foot fault) brought up match point for Muguruza - and it encapsulated the whole affair somewhat, the 23-year-old pounding her way to the net before being forced to hit a sequence of reflex volleys to end it.
Afterwards, she said she was content with her game. "I'm hungry [for] matches - I want to play as many as I can," Muguruza told the press. "To be able today to win and get another day in a tournament and have another match on Thursday, I think it's good. I'm pleased."
Safely in the second round for the sixth time in as many years, Muguruza's quest for more matches will continue against another unorthodox player in Hsieh Su-Wei, who came out on top of a rollercoaster first round against Zhu Lin 0-6, 6-0, 8-6.