By Ian Chadband
(Reuters) – Wimbledon will naturally miss an old favorite with Rafael Nadal sidelined by injury yet Garbine Muguruza, armed with her sunny demeanor and blistering talent, seems perfectly happy and equipped to fill the void left by her great Spanish compatriot.
Donning a replica Spanish football team shirt and beaming the big smile that lit up Wimbledon last year when she reached the final, Muguruza did her bit on Saturday to remind everyone that Spain has a new superstar with the charisma to emulate Nadal.
Not that the new French Open champion could quite credit the fact that she was grabbing all the headlines back home rather than the man she idolized while growing up in Barcelona.
After Nadal pulled out of the French Open with the wrist injury that has now prevented him shooting for a third Wimbledon title, Muguruza flew the flag with her stunning victory over Serena Williams in the Roland Garros final.
So entering Wimbledon, the Spanish media spotlight, usually beamed at Nadal, is trained completely on their 22-year-old Venezuelan-born heroine.
“I thought about that the other day when I saw Rafa was not playing (at Wimbledon),” Muguruza smiled at a news conference at Wimbledon on Saturday.
“For sure, people are looking more at what I’m doing but I think that’s fine. It’s a good sign. I like it.
“I was so happy finally this year. I’m like ‘I did better than Nadal in French Open! This is so weird!'”
Muguruza is having to quickly get used to the fact that having a spectacular game to accompany a winning personality is a combination guaranteed to rocket her into the sporting elite — but she swears the Paris tour de force has not changed her.
“Nothing really different. Maybe it’s weird, but no,” she shrugged.
Yet, apart from her natural, cheery manner with the media, she is in many ways unrecognizable now from the kid who waltzed into Wimbledon last year as a promising talent and ended it as a finalist bold enough to give even Williams a fright.
She now stands as the world’s number two player, so assured and accomplished that she appears the one best equipped to halt Williams’ march to a record-equaling 22nd grand slam title.
“I’m, like, (it’s) so quick and a lot of things have happened in between (the two Wimbledons). I mean, I can’t believe it,” said Muguruza.
Something else she finds fairly incredible is the thought of playing alongside Nadal at the Rio Olympics, especially as neither of them normally play mixed doubles.
When will they ever get chance to practice together? “I have no idea,” she laughed.
“I think last minute. It’s going to be like ‘Well, Rafa, what do you do?’ ‘I don’t know. You?’ We’ll figure it out.”
Before then, there’s the chance to make her mark on the grass again, a surface which, like many of her claycourt-loving compatriots, she once felt was only for cows.
“A lot of people were saying ‘I think you will play good on grass’ and I’m like ‘there’s no way, I hate grass. I’m horrible’.”
Yet now she thinks that maybe they were right after all. “My shots are pretty aggressive, strong and deep, and I go for the shots. On grass, maybe you kind of feel more that fast game.
“I had a love and hate with Wimbledon because at the beginning it was hard for me. With time, I’ve got more used to grass and I think my style of game helps.”
Muguruza was wearing the red shirt to show her love for Spain’s Euro 2016 team — “In Spain, if you don’t follow football, you’re dead!” she laughed — but a whole nation appears to be smitten with her too now.
(Reporting by Ian Chadband; editing by Martyn Herman)