Women’s tennis has never lacked the depth and quality in its field. When you have a variety and abundance of talents, blockbuster opening-round matches in the first round of the Grand Slams are inevitable. Former world number one Garbine Muguruza will open her 2018 US Open campaign against the dangerous and giant-killing Zhang Shuai, with this shaping up to be one of the most highly-anticipated clashes on the opening day of play.
Muguruza has not had the most successful year in 2018 while Zhang could not find her best form throughout the year as well. The win will be important for both players as the Spaniard could earn the confidence-boosting victory over a player who provides her with many troubles, while the Chinese needs the good win to get back to her winning ways.
Muguruza’s recent form: Fall from the top-10
Muguruza reached just three semifinals throughout the first eight months of the year, and for a player like the Spaniard’s calibre, that would be relatively disappointing. She claimed the title in Monterrey while a last-four finish at the French Open and a runner-up position at the Qatar Total Open helped her to consolidate her spot in the top-10. However, failure to defend her Wimbledon and Cincinnati titles meant that she soon fell out of that elite batch, and now finds herself ranked 12th.
She played just three matches against players ranked inside the top-10 and won two of them, which both coincidentally came against Caroline Garcia in the Middle East. All in all, she defeated top-20 oppositions on just two occasions this year. Muguruza was the top-ranked player in the world leaving the US Open last year but now finds herself dangling outside the top after a series of disappointing results.
Muguruza came into the US Open Series with a lingering arm injury, the same issue which forced her to withdraw from the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic and Rogers Cup. She made her return at the Western and Southern Open, her first match since a shocking second-round loss to Alison Van Uytvanck in Wimbledon, but suffered yet another defeat as she fell to Lesia Tsurenko in three tough sets.
Zhang’s current form: Inability to breakthrough at the top
It has been a mediocre year for Zhang thus far, and she only managed to make four WTA quarterfinal appearances. A relatively astonishing fact could be about how the Chinese managed to consolidate her spot inside the world’s top-40 despite only having three top-50 wins to her name throughout the year. She owns a poor 17-20 (0.459) win-loss record and the average ranking of the opponents whom she defeated en route to her four quarterfinal finishes is 192.8.
She had just finished competing at the 2018 Asian Games, representing China in this quadrennial competition. Zhang was forced to settle for a Silver Medal after falling short of teammate Wang Qiang in the women’s singles competition and was visibly upset with her performance. Zhang has to fly over to New York and adapt to the completely different conditions much faster than usual. Jetlag issues may arise but getting used to the courts at Flushing Meadows is more important.
Head to Head
Muguruza and Zhang met twice in the past — and on both occasions, we needed three sets and more than two hours to decide the winner. The Chinese stunned the two-time Major champion in Doha back in 2017, triumphing with a thrilling 7-6, 3-6, 7-5 scoreline before the Spaniard exacted revenge for her loss in the Miami Open during the same year.
Both Muguruza and Zhang adopt an aggressive playing style — although it is Muguruza who has the more variety and consistency in her game which allowed her to earn so many achievements on the court. Zhang could be inconsistent and erratic at times, and against a player of the Spaniard’s calibre, the Chinese cannot afford to make any mistakes. Zhang also tends to be overpowered easily by players stronger than her, and hence she cannot afford to be passive as well.
Nonetheless, Muguruza can have her own rough patches as well. She needs to find her groove as quickly as possible, especially in a tricky first-round match at a Major where she will certainly face the early nerves. Zhang, who is known for her big-name upsets in the past, will be looking to pounce on that opportunity and come out of the blocks firing on all cylinders.
One factor which could play a crucial role in this match-up could be fatigue. Having just flown to New York after competing in the Asian Games held in Indonesia, a lack of practice and insufficient time to adapt to the conditions might prove it tough for Zhang, who is scheduled to play on Monday. And that’s the reason why I feel that Muguruza might edge this encounter in straight sets and safely progress into the second round.