NEW YORK, NY, USA - No.10 seed Garbiñe Muguruza overcame a slow start and a tenacious opponent to get her season resumption off the ground in the first round of the US Open, defeating Nao Hibino 6-4, 6-4 in one hour and 29 minutes.
The Australian Open finalist had reached at least the quarterfinals of each of her first five tournaments of 2020 before the tour was paused, but had needed to delay her own return to action in the New York bubble, withdrawing from last week's Western & Southern Open due to an ankle injury. Against an opponent whom she had dominated in both of their previous meetings, Muguruza would have a tougher time asserting her authority today - but once she did, the two-time Grand Slam champion was in full flow.
"I was happy to go on the court," said Muguruza afterwards. "Of course, you know, the lack of matches, it's there. I had a slow start. I think Hibino started very fast, very well, and she took the first four games very fast. Then I started, little by little, feeling better, and starting to feel a little bit more my game. I could turn it around.
Re-emerging on to the Tour for the first time since the shutdown, Muguruza was content with how she had spent the last six months, saying it had been a very "teenage" experience. "I was surprised that I was good," she mused. "Being away a little bit from the court and resting and everything, I was surprised that I was actually happy to experience that.
This was despite the break cutting short her resurgent form of January and February - something Muguruza was philosophical about. "For everyone it was hard," she pointed out. "For the ones that were playing well because they had to stop or the ones that were playing not so good because they couldn't make it better. Obviously, I was fine during quarantine. I had a good time. It was healthy to rest a little bit also the body, the mind, it's a little bit of forced resting. I took it in a good way.
"I did things I didn't have time before. I don't think new hobbies, but I did some studying, some cooking. I did some interviews and writing and stuff. Also enjoying doing nothing, because sometimes, you know, we are so busy in this life, it's so intense, that just doing nothing for a little bit is also nice."
Hibino had garnered just four games in two prior encounters with Muguruza combined, both back in 2016, but today the World No.78 matched that within the first 20 minutes. The 25-year-old was also on a career upswing in the months prior to the shutdown, having captured her second WTA title last September at home in Hiroshima and her first Top 10 win over Elina Svitolina in the Hua Hin quarterfinals in February, and this was evident in her fast start.
Redirecting the ball with ease, varying height and depth, and constructing points smartly, Hibino sealed a 3-0 lead with a pair of aces, and moved out to 4-1 after a perfect game that featured an excellent backhand pass, a neat volley finish and an exquisite counterdrop. By contrast, Muguruza was error-prone, and committed four double faults in her first three service games.
But once the former World No.1 found her range, the turnaround was sudden and swift. Redoubling her intensity, Muguruza began to hit her spots with brutal drive volleys and down-the-line winners, overwhelming Hibino with depth and pace and effectively preventing the five-time WTA finalist from playing her game.
In total, Muguruza would reel off seven straight games - and 28 of 37 points - from 1-4 down in what would end up being a spellbinding purple patch of power, sealing the first set with a backhand one-two punch and then finding a down-the-line winner off the same wing to immediately break in the second.
Smooth sailing for Garbine Muguruza ⛵️ pic.twitter.com/iBoJCCGMfq— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 1, 2020
Hibino, who began the match watertight but increasingly lost control of her forehand under the weight of Muguruza's shot, managed to come up with a pass straight off a drive volley on the way to halting the Spaniard's run of games, and thereafter managed to regain her own equilibrium on serve, battling hard in the seventh game to successfully stave off two points for the double break and outdoing Muguruza with a backhand crosscourt to save a match point in the ninth.
But the former World No.56 remained unable to make an impact against the Muguruza serve, and too prone to mishitting short, high forehands that sat up for the 26-year-old to whack away. Muguruza sent down her fastest serve of the match, a 109mph bullet, to set up her second match point, and took it after a superb rally by crushing an overhead, her 21st winner of the day balanced against 23 unforced errors. Next up for the World No.16 will be former Wimbledon semifinalist Tsvetana Pironkova, playing her first tournament in over three years following maternity leave.
The Bulgarian betrayed shockingly little rust in a 6-2, 6-3 win over Liudmila Samsonova, having not competed since Wimbledon 2017. "I was surprised actually, because the last time I saw her was many years ago," said Muguruza. "It's going to be a little bit interesting to see, coming back for so many years out of the tour, to face an opponent I haven't watched in the last years. So it's always going to be tricky. But she's playing well. She's a fast court player. I'm just going to try to be ready for my matches with not a high expectation with the circumstances."