Muguruza is back … as a Grand Slam runner-up

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              Spain's Garbine Muguruza answers questions at press conference following her loss to Sofia Kenin of the U.S. in the women's final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)
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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — When Garbiñe Muguruza lost her first set of this Australian Open 6-0, she was six games from a potential defeat that wouldn’t have been entirely shocking following her first-round exits in the two previous majors.

When she took the first set of Saturday’s final with two breaks of serve to one, the unseeded Muguruza was a set away from clinching her first major title since Wimbledon in 2017.

The 26-year-old Spaniard dropped the second set to Sofia Kenin, but had three break-point chances against the first-time Grand Slam finalist at love-40 in a pivotal fifth game of the third. A fearless Kenin reeled off five straight points, and the 21-year-old American then didn’t drop another game en route to a 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory and her first major title.

Muguruza was asked later if she felt like she was back following her run to her first major final on hard courts, and only second time past the fourth round in 10 Slams.

“Back? Hmm, OK. If people see it because I’m in a Grand Slam final, that makes sense,” Muguruza said. “But I feel like I was playing a lot of tournaments. I was on the tour, guys. I didn’t disappear. I was there … (just) not reaching final rounds.”

Muguruza was runner-up to Serena Williams at Wimbledon in 2015, and then beat Serena to win the 2016 French Open. She beat Venus Williams in the 2017 Wimbledon final, becoming the first player to beat both Williams sisters in a Grand Slam final.

But then she had two relatively lean seasons, winning just the Monterrey title in ’18 and ’19 as her ranking slipped from No. 1 in September 2017 to a season-ending No. 36 last year. Being in the top 32 gets you a seeding at the four major tournaments.

So the start of the new decade is already an improvement on the end of the teens.

She’s back — as a Grand Slam finalist. She’s back — in the top 20, at No. 16 next week. She’s back — working with Conchita Martinez, the 1994 Wimbledon champion and runner-up at the Australian Open in ’98.

“I don’t think at all about the previous years – the good ones or the bad ones,” she said. “I feel like, ‘What for?’ I got the best out of it, good or bad. I just started a new year. I have a new team.

“I don’t analyze too much. Really, start of the year, first round (against No. 155th-ranked U.S. qualifier Shelby Rogers) I was almost in the locker room. I lost first set in, like, 10 minutes,” she said, adding she didn’t need to be too hard on herself considering how things turned out.

Muguruza even managed a smile, after it was put to her at a post-match news conference that her demeanor had changed over the last couple of seasons.

“I think just right now it’s tough to have a big smile, though I’m smiling inside,” she said. “I’m just taking it easy after these two years. The media has been tough on me. Today people will say very good things about me, and the next week bad things if you lose. I kind of found myself less excited, less excited with how things work.”

She’ll be philosophical while also regretting not being able to convert more than two of her 12 break point chances, while Kenin converted five of six opportunities.

“I’m not very happy about my performance,” Muguruza said. “I think at the important moments I didn’t find my shots. I think she found her shots, I didn’t.

“Right now it’s tough to be happy, although it has been an incredible tournament. You lose a final, but you got to make it to the final to be able to win or lose.”