Four years ago, Garbiñe Muguruza beat Venus Williams in the Wimbledon final and seemed on the verge of world domination. Following her triumph the year before at Roland Garros, Muguruza, then 23, proved she was an all-court player – with an all-consuming will to win.
She held the No.1 ranking for four weeks and finished the year ranked No.2, behind Simona Halep, but then her mojo suddenly evaporated like mist in the forest. The next three years were, by the standards of that expectation, extremely disappointing; her year-end rankings dipped to No.18, to No.36 to No.15.
Wednesday night, after a puzzling three-year sabbatical, Muguruza firmly announced her return at the Akron WTA Finals Guadalajara. In the last match of the season, Muguruza defeated Anett Kontaveit 6-3, 7-5 for the title.
Muguruza, now 28, the oldest year-end champion since Serena Williams seven years ago – and the first Spanish winner – graciously collected the Billie Jean King Trophy. She finishes as the WTA’s No.3-ranked player.
"I'm just very happy I proved to myself once again I can be the best, I can be the 'maestra,' like how we say in Spanish," Muguruza said in press. "That puts me in a very good position for next year, a good ranking."
Kontaveit winds up at No.7 and, along with Ons Jabeur, finishes with a tour-high 48 victories. She was broken only four times in four matches coming into the final. Muguruza scored five breaks.
At a critical juncture in her career, this was a direct message to Kontaveit and the rest of the new wave: I’ve still got game. Believe it or not, Karolina Pliskova is the only player in the Top 10 who is older.
"The last couple of years, I didn't play the same way I played before," Muguruza said. "But I didn't play a bad tennis, either. I was just here, there, not going into the deep rounds at Grand Slams that made the difference. I always felt I had the tennis. I was just not putting the battle together.
"I always believe I made finals of a Grand Slam, reached the rankings, I'm like, I have the tennis, I just have to show it. It's hard, of course."
Muguruza, playing with a controlled intensity, chilled out the hottest player in the game. Kontaveit, 25, had made an heroic run at season’s end, winning 29 of 32 matches – and an astounding four titles in a span of 10 weeks – to grab the last qualifying spot in Guadalajara.
The No.6 seed Muguruza was buoyed by the power of home cooking. She was born and spent her first six years in Caracas, Venezuela, and was embraced all week long by the Mexican crowds.
When Muguruza won the first set with an unlikely backhand lob, she looked amazed. When Kontaveit’s backhand found the net on the final point, Muguruza fell down on the baseline and convulsed in tears. Later, she covered her eyes and touched her heart. This was a long time coming.
When Muguruza came up to the microphone, she turned to Kontaveit and said, “Sorry that we had to play twice.”
And then she related a story from the US Open, when told her there was a possibility the year-end championships might be played in Guadalajara.
“I was like, 'Oh, my God, I have to make it.'" And look now, we’re here.”
The victory was the culmination of a season shimmering with surprises.
Kontaveit was one of six players to make her Top 10 debut. The other five were Iga Swiatek, Barbora Krejcikova, Maria Sakkari and Paula Badosa and Ons Jabeur. Five of them were in Guadalajara, and all are 27 or younger, which is to say, striding into their prime.
The season saw the epic rise of teenagers Raducanu, Leylah Fernandez and Coco Gauff, as well as the resurgence of veterans Karolina Pliskova, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Angelique Kerber. Jabeur became the first Arab woman in history to crack the Top 10.
And now, Muguruza has re-entered the conversation. History says that, at 28, she should be approaching her prime.
"Oh, I'm still the same," Muguruza said. "I'm still the same. That's what fuels me. This trophy, like right now here, these are the best feelings."
For Muguruza, the nadir came in 2019. She broke with longtime coach Sam Sumyk, with whom she had a sometimes stormy relationship. After losing in the first round at Wimbledon and the US Open, she cut her season short – and undertook an expedition up the face of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak.
With a friend and a group of guides, Muguruza’s harrowing five-day journey took her through icy rivers, glaciers and sub-zero temperatures. And, perhaps, toward a new perspective.
“It was a very hard challenge, completely different to what I do,” Muguruza told reporters at the 2020 Australian Open. “You’re climbing that mountain, and it’s only you. I really like the experience to see myself in the middle of nowhere and, yeah, just having one clear thought just to keep climbing.”
Which, of course, is what she’s been doing ever since in the WTA rankings. Looking for a reason, Muguruza was the player least fazed by the 5,200-foot elevation of Guadalajara. Maybe it’s because she had already reached the 19,341-foot summit of Uhuru Peak.
With coach Conchita Martinez in her corner, Muguruza emphatically planted her flag. That’s who she ran to after the last ball, for a group hug with her team.
If this victory said anything, Muguruza’s again going to be a factor.