MELBOURNE, Australia - Too often over the last couple of years, Garbiñe Muguruza looked as if she was playing scared - she appeared unhappy and fearful on court, as though she was constantly worried about losing. And, of course, when you're thinking like that, that's what's going to happen: you're going to end up losing.
But now Muguruza has regained her champion's mentality, which has brought her to the Australian Open final against Sofia Kenin, which will also be the Spaniard's first Grand Slam final since winning Wimbledon in 2017. How has she turned her tennis around? I have two words for you: Conchita Martinez.
Outside the Top 30, and unseeded at Melbourne Park, Muguruza is now just one match away from winning the Australian Open for the first time, and the biggest reason for that is because she reunited with Martínez during the off-season.
Martínez, who is herself a former Grand Slam champion, has the magic touch with Muguruza. She brings out the champion in Muguruza.
You might recall that it was Martínez who helped Muguruza to win Wimbledon two-and-a-half years ago. Sam Sumyk, who was then Muguruza's regular coach, didn't travel to London for personal reasons so Martínez took over. I'll always remember how Muguruza was a totally different looking player that fortnight.
She was so relaxed, and everything was flowing freely on the court. Muguruza was walking like a champion, acting like a champion, and playing like a champion. After that Wimbledon run, though, I felt as though she often looked scared on the court. But now Muguruza and Martínez are working together again and the transformation is quite remarkable.
As Martínez spoke about, they have been working on different aspects of the game but, to me, the biggest plus that Martínez brings is this champion's mentality. She gives Muguruza the belief of a champion. She has a way of giving Muguruza confidence and having her play like a champion. There's a different level of trust between a former champion and a current champion. As a player, when you have a former Grand Slam champion as your coach, you take their word for it, you don't question what they tell you.
Most importantly of all, Muguruza doesn't feel any additional pressure from Martínez. The message seems to be: "Go out and play. Have fun. Show them how well you can play." Rather than: "Oh gosh, you need to do this and you need to do that." I think before there was maybe too much strategy as well as pressure, and not enough instinct and just playing and feeling the game.
No one predicted that the first Grand Slam final of the year would be contested by Muguruza and Kenin, who will be making a first appearance in a match of this magnitude. Kenin probably didn't see it happening either, at least not yet. But the two of them have made it through and kudos to both women.
You have to go with Muguruza as the favourite to take the opening major of the year. She has bigger weapons. She's moving beautifully so she's playing really great defense, which wasn't a strength before. She's got amazing offense. She's big at the net. She's got a bigger serve and bigger groundstrokes.
Kenin moves a little better than Muguruza but it's hard to find openings against Muguruza. And then as soon as Muguruza can, she goes for it and puts herself in the attacking mode. The match is on her racket. It's hers to win or lose, but she will have to play her best tennis to lift that trophy because Kenin isn't going to beat herself. Muguruza is going to have to earn it.
Kenin is such a fighter, with such great attitude, I love that. And of course she backs it up with her game. She's not just your basic hitter. She runs well so she defends well but she's also looking to attack and to get to the net. She has an unorthodox two-handed backhand volley but she hits it well and she sure knows her way around the court. Kenin doesn't look uncomfortable anywhere on the court and although she would still rather not come to the net, when she's there, she's good.
Maybe the difference will be that Muguruza has Martínez in her corner. Some players on the WTA Tour just work better with female coaches. It's funny when you think about it. They say that women are more complicated and more emotional than men, and that it's more difficult to coach them. Well, who can relate better to a woman than another woman? And a champion to another champion?