Should Muguruza’s latest defeat spell the end for coach Sumyk?

Hannah Wilks in WTA 3 Nov 2018
  • Former world no. 1 Garbine Muguruza ends a poor season at world no. 17 after Zhuhai semifinal defeat
  • Strained relationship with coach Samuel Sumyk results in on-court spat during loss
  • Should Muguruza move on from Sumyk in hopes of rekindling her game?
Garbine Muguruza speaks to the press after losing to Wang Qiang in the semifinals of the WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai (Photo by Kevin Lee/Getty Images)

Will a poor end to Garbine Muguruza’s disappointing 2018 season spell the end for her partnership with coach Samuel Sumyk?

A forgettable season came to a miserable end for former world no. 1 Garbine Muguruza on Saturday as she slumped to a 2-6, 0-6 defeat to Wang Qiang in the semifinals of the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai – but not before an acrimonious spat with coach Samuel Sumyk ended with him walking away in the middle of an on-court coaching session.

Muguruza had been scheduled to face Madison Keys in the semifinals of the last WTA Tour event of the year, but the American was replaced by Chinese no. 1 Wang Qiang after pulling out due to an injured knee. Muguruza had opportunities to break the Wang serve at 1-2 but couldn’t convert and surrendered her own serve in the following game. 

Muguruza lost 2-6, 0-6 to Wang Qiang in Zhuhai  (Photo by Kevin Lee/Getty Images)
The Spaniard, whose ranking has slid to world no. 17 after a poor season, summoned Sumyk on to court for advice, but frustration boiled over for both during an uncomfortable exchange. 

‘There’s one rule: I don’t talk to people who are upset,’ Sumyk said, before walking away in the middle of the coaching timeout when Muguruza’s response didn’t seem to show any signs of her calming down.

Muguruza would go on to lose the next ten games, winning just eight points in the second set before Wang sealed a resounding victory with an ace down the T. 

The crushing defeat means that while Wang progressed to the final in Zhuhai to meet Ashleigh Barty, Muguruza ends 2018 with just one title to her name – the International-level Monterrey Open, where she faced just one player ranked inside the top 50 – and one final, having finished runner-up to Petra Kvitova at the Qatar Total Open in Doha in February.

It’s the first season since 2014 that Muguruza hasn’t won a Grand Slam or reached a major final, nor succeeded in qualifying for the WTA Finals. She went 35-20 and lost five matches to players ranked outside the top 100. Her best result at a Grand Slam came at the French Open, where she made the semifinals with a crushing win over Maria Sharapova, only to get completely wiped off the court by Simona Halep, 1-6, 4-6. She lost in the second rounds of the other majors – to Su-Wei Hsieh at the Australian Open, Karolina Muchova at the US Open, and most damagingly, to Alison van Uytvanck at Wimbledon, where she was trying to defend her title.

One of five women to be ranked world no. 1 during the course of 2017, Muguruza is the only one – apart from Serena Williams, for whom the circumstances are quite different – to end 2018 outside of the top 10. 

What happened?

Muguruza reacts during her defeat to van Uytvanck at Wimbledon (BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images)
Consistency has never been the 25-year-old’s hallmark – last year, when she won 47 matches during the season, was really the exception rather than the rule – but we have come to expect Muguruza to find something, usually at the French Open or Wimbledon, to lift her season and re-validate her place in the top 10, even if she’s come into that part of the calendar with little form. But this year, when she made it past Sharapova and into the semifinals of Roland Garros to face Halep – exactly the kind of situation and match that’s usually, reliably, elicited some of her best tennis – she went into her shell and let herself be bossed around the court. At Wimbledon, she found herself up against an inspired Alison van Uytvanck who played probably the finest match of her career, which was unlucky – but she didn’t, or couldn’t, lift herself to keep pace with the Belgian, even after winning the first set. 

There’s something missing in the Muguruza game that used to be there, and it’s the forehand. The Spaniard’s footwork to that wing has always been her biggest weakness, and that shot isn’t anywhere near as technically sound as her backhand – but it used to be a weapon, and she used to be able, when she was feeling confident and playing well, to use it to win points in a way that made up for its higher unforced error rate. Now it does nothing but land short, and let opponents back into the rally. 

The relationship between Muguruza and Sumyk has always seemed somewhat contentious under the spotlight afforded by televised on-court coaching. The Frenchman, who formerly worked with Victoria Azarenka during some of her greatest successes and Vera Zvonareva, started working with Muguruza in early 2016 and oversaw her runs to the French Open title in 2016 and Wimbledon in 2017 (although he was not physically present for the latter, with his place being taken by Conchita Martinez. Martinez briefly joined the Muguruza team in February of this year, but the partnership did not last. Martinez is now working some of the time with Karolina Pliskova.)

Sumyk coaches an unhappy Muguruza in Madrid last May  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
During that time we have seen plenty of uncomfortable moments between Muguruza and Sumyk, whose coaching consultations often turn into confrontations – like the time in Miami last year when Sumyk had to tell Muguruza, ‘Don’t tell me to shut the f—k up.’ Sumyk has walked away during on-court timeouts before when he wasn't happy with his player's attitude.

It does seem to work sometimes - the two had a heated exchange during a coaching timeout as Muguruza played against Anastasija Sevastova on Friday, when Muguruza took exception to Sumyk praising the quality of the tennis and asking her not to get upset between points, responding that all she cared about was whether she won. It was followed by Muguruza breaking back as Sevastova served for the match before sealing victory in a tie-break.

Sumyk has also said that he believes that tension, and Muguruza’s frustrations and anxieties, are a good thing.

‘When she’s suffering inside, I know it’s good,’ he told the New York Times at the French Open

‘I know it sounds weird, but yeah — suffering is not a negative thing. I know when she’s very demanding with herself and it’s never good enough, then it’s good. […] I don’t try to make her more relaxed. I try to make her understand what anxiety is, where it comes from, how to channel it. That’s what I try to do.’

Nobody really knows what happens inside a player-coach relationship except the two involved. But it’s hard not to think about the fact that the last time Muguruza looked her lethally effective on court, it was also the last time that she seemed reasonably relaxed and calm. It can’t be a coincidence that that was at Wimbledon last year, on her way to the title, when not only was she unable to call Sumyk to the court, but he wasn’t even in the country.

It would not be a huge surprise if the Muguruza-Sumyk partnership had ended and the Frenchman – who is always going to be in demand – had moved on to another player by the time the 2019 season begins. Either way, we can only hope that we’ll see the confident, aggressive, dictatorial Muguruza taking to the court next year, and not her anxious, tentative, doppelganger.


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Should Muguruza’s latest defeat spell the end for coach Sumyk?

Garbine Muguruza’s forgettable season came to a disappointing end as she lost 2-6, 0-6 to Wang Qiang in Zhuhai. After bad results and yet another on-court spat with coach Samuel Sumyk, should the former world no. 1 cut her losses and move on?

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