Birmingham - Former Wimbledon finalist Garbine Muguruza
suffered a scare before taking the first early steps that may help her forget
her ordeal in losing her French Open title 10 days ago.
The sixth seeded Spaniard was at times in serious
difficulties during her survival by 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 against Elizaveta Kulichkova,
a Russian qualifier, in the first round of the Aegon Classic, a Wimbledon
Kulichkova is slender of build but packs a tremendous wallop
with her ground strokes on both sides, and had also had three qualifying
matches to help her get used to the grass.
She frequently forced Muguruza to scramble and plunge in
different directions, unable to impose her elegant game on the rallie. When
Kulichkova broke back in the final set with a chance to serve for 5-5 the match
could have gone in any direction.
"I often felt like a rookie out there," admitted
Muguruza. "It was like a cat fight. She's very powerful, but I kept my
concentration and spirit and I turned things around."
It had taken Muguruza four or five days to start afresh
after her loss in Paris to Kristina Mladenovic in an atmosphere that had caused
her to make strong criticisms of the hostile crowd.
She claims she has put it behind her, but allowed herself
one more comment on her trauma on her arrival here. "Tennis matches should
not be like football," she said. "People should be respectful."
Muguruza does though believe she is a better player than
when she reached the Wimbledon final two years ago. "I am much more experienced
and less emotional," she reckoned.
"Before I was super-hyped, but now I am more
comfortable with situations. They don't take me by surprise now. I expect
things more than before."
She next plays Alison Riske, the world number 45 from the
United States who is at her best on grass, and has previously reached the
semi-final of this tournament.
Earlier Kvitova, the two-time Wimbledon champion, made a
winning comeback to her beloved grass with a 6-2, 6-3 2 win over her fellow
Czech Tereza Smitkova.
Not that Kvitova will consider this a step towards an
attempt on a third Wimbledon title just yet. More importantly it continued to
raise hopes that after the much-publicised injuries inflicted upon her left
hand by an intruder in her home she might yet regain many of the qualities her
impressively forthright game.
At the age of 27, and after six months on the sidelines,
this was only the third match in her comeback, but there moments when Kvitova
the ball almost as well as ever. There were also mistakes, but these became
fewer and less bothersome the longer the match went on.
Kvitova had come away from her comeback tournament, the
French Open where she won only one match, with an empty feeling. Now she was
happy, she said, an emotion apparently shared by others, particularly when the
music signalling her capture of the first set was left on so long that it
delayed the onset of the second by an entire minute.
"I love to be playing on grass, I have to be glad I am
playing the game I love again, and yes, I am happy with the way I am
playing," she said. "I hope my coaches are too.
"Of course I still have to be careful about things. I
don't want to get inflammation," she said of the damage which apparently
included damage to all five fingers and two tendons. "I came here early to
practise and try to do the right things.
If Kvitova has recovered enough of her former brilliance to
reach the semi-finals, her path will have been smoothed by the exit of another
top 10 player in her half.
This time it happened with a defeat, not one of the
tournament's many withdrawals, with the third-seeded Dominika Cibulkova failing
to convert two second set match points and losing 5-7,7-6(9-7), 7-5 to Lucie
Safarova, the former top 10 Czech.
Cibulkova also broke serve to lead 4-2 in the final set, but
Safarova broke back by valiantly running down a tight drop shot and putting the
resulting shot away at the net.
She also appeared to finish the physically the stronger of
the two, for the hard-working Cibulkova made three uncharacteristic
ground-stroking errors in her final service game and it cost her the match.