By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Garbine Muguruza’s big-match experience should prove the difference in the Australian Open women’s final against American surprise package Sofia Kenin, according to seven-times Grand Slam champion Justine Henin.
The tournament has had plenty of upsets, with Serena Williams shocked by China’s Wang Qiang and Kenin dumping top seed Ash Barty from the semi-finals, but Belgian Henin expects class to win out at Rod Laver Arena on Saturday.
Twice Grand Slam champion Muguruza is playing her fourth major final, while 14th seed Kenin is in her first, having never made it past the fourth round of any of the Slams prior to Melbourne this year.
“I think Muguruza is the clear favorite to win, of course, because of her experience at the Grand Slams,” Henin, who won the 2004 title at Melbourne Park, told Reuters in an interview.
“It looks like her mind is completely on court, totally connected to what she’s doing.
“It’s great to see her back at this level.
“She’s had lots of ups and downs for sure but she’s a girl who has the potential to play semi-finals and finals everywhere.”
While Muguruza has returned to the form that saw her claim the 2016 French Open and 2017 Wimbledon crown, 21-year-old Kenin has had a fairytale run that really kicked off with a tough fourth round win over 15-year-old American sensation Coco Gauff.
She followed that up by knocking out Tunisian trailblazer Ons Jabeur in the quarters before breaking Australian hearts with a straight sets win over Barty.
Henin, a TV analyst for Eurosport, said Kenin was not among the most impressive players on tour but her courage during the clutch moments had been a revelation.
“She doesn’t do anything exceptional but she’s doing what she can do. She was maybe a little bit nervous in the beginning (against Barty),” said 37-year-old Henin, who claimed Olympic tennis gold at the 2004 Athens Games.
“But when she had the opportunity to take the lead, she went for it. She has good vision of the court, moves pretty well.
“Of course it’s going to be her first Grand Slam final but from what we’ve seen, she’s pretty relaxed.”
Henin said Muguruza’s reunion with former coach Conchita Martinez, the first Spanish woman to win Wimbledon, had helped the 26-year-old reset her game after a poor 2019 season.
Muguruza’s aggressive net-rushing in Melbourne, which unsettled Simona Halep during the semi-final, was also a sign of the confidence in her groundstrokes and tactics.
“I think she’s moving well, also, which we saw during the second set against Halep when she was in defense,” said Henin.
“Sometimes she rushes a little bit too much and needs one or two more balls to build but the net-rushing is pretty successful.
“She can volley pretty nicely so we’ll probably see more of that (in the final).”
While a third Grand Slam title would set former world number one Muguruza apart from most of her tour rivals, Henin said the women’s game was still searching for dominant players to succeed 23-times Grand Slam champion Serena Williams as the American great winds down her career.
“Who’s going to be the player or among the two or three who are going to be really consistent every week?” she said.
“When you look at the men’s tour, it’s different. The same guys are almost playing in the quarters every week (on tour) and there are less surprises.
“The (women’s) level has improved but it’s just the consistency we want to see a little bit more.”
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; editing by Richard Pullin)