Is there a more uncomfortable coaching relationship to watch in tennis right now than that of Garbiñe Muguruza and Sam Sumyk?
After watching their not one but two heated exchanges that went viral in Zhuhai this past week during the WTA Elite Trophy, I’d answer that with a de facto, “No.”.
The first made headlines when, in the middle of berating her coach, Mugurza snapped at a nearby cameraman: “Are you going to fucking bother me with a camera?”
The second was much shorter, with Sumyk pleading for her to calm down before storming off in fumes:
Sumyk: “Please don’t be upset.”
Muguruza: “But I’m not upset.”
Sumyk: “Fuck you.”
This isn’t the first time that the two have been caught in profanity-laced exchanges. For example, during a tense 0-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4 win over American Christina McHale in Miami last year, Sumyk began the changeover with a threat: “Don’t tell me to shut the fuck up ever again.”
Muguruza is one of the fiercest and most talented competitors of her generation, being the third-youngest Grand Slam champion and the youngest player currently holding multiple Grand Slam singles titles (defeating the Williams sisters in both finals, no less). She is known for her explosive game, which requires nerves of steel in order to execute.
Whereas when she was new on the tour, she was content with winning a few matches over top players, or a couple titles here and there, since she’s held herself to a much higher standard. In interviews, she’s been candid in admitting that winning is one of the best feelings there is because it validates the work. However, the pressure she puts on herself to win seems to make every match do or die.
More so, she’s known for maintaining this cold composure off court as well, calling it “the mindset of a champion”. (According to fellow head-case, Alizé Cornet, she’s the least friendly in the locker room.) Whereas after her breakthrough, she was known for her humility and down-to-earth persona, since tasting Grand Slam glory, she’s been characterized by a more pompous and dignified aura.
Sumyk’s resume isn’t too shabby either. He’s coached the likes of Vera Zvonareva, Eugenie Bouchard, and, most notably, Victoria Azarenka, leading her to two Grand Slam titles as well as the No. 1 ranking.
While Azarenka seemed to thrive off of his intensity, his other two students seem to have been crushed by his overbearing coaching method that requires total submission of the pupil. Vera Zvonareva reach her two Grand Slam finals after he joined Azarenka’s camp, whereas his stint with Bouchard only lasted six months, with the Canadian stating at the time: “It definitely wasn’t working. There were some big problems, and I just had to make a change.”
Bouchard on split with Sumyk: “It definitely wasn’t working. There were some big problems, and I just felt like I had to make a change.”
— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) August 12, 2015
While Sumyk certainly deserves credit for coaching Garbiñe to her maiden Grand Slam singles titles at the French Open title in 2016, her results certainly dropped off of a cliff shortly after.
Yes, she did win Wimbledon the following year, but that occurred in Sumyk’s brief absence in order to attend the birth of his daughter. With former No. 2 Conchita Martinez taking over coaching duties, Muguruza notes that the change in pace and coaching style played a major factor in her unlikely victory at the All England Club that year. In fact, the change in temperament was so noticeable that official WTA correspondent, Courtney Mace Nguyen, noted “the look in her eye”, during her Wimbledon preview podcast.
Since that Wimbledon victory, she’s dropped to No. 18 in the rankings, posting a 33-20 record in 2018 alone.
I think the problem belies in a combination of Mugurza’s perfectionist nature and Sumyk’s coaching philosophy. In an interview with the New York Times before her 2018 Roland Garros semifinal encounter with Simona Halep, Sumyk admits: “When she’s suffering on the inside, I know it’s good.”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Garbiñe lost that match to Simona, who had her own infamous on-court meltdown in Miami in 2017.
Simona too used to force herself to suffer in order to win. However, more often than not, that suffering forced her to lose many matches from a winnable position. In the end, Darren’s decision to dump his charge and forcing her to learn cold turkey ultimately proved successful in developing Simona into a No. 1 player and one capable of tasting Grand Slam glory.
While I don’t think that either Muguruza or Sumyk are fully to blame for the tenacity in their relationship, I also don’t believe that the partnership stands any chance of bearing fruit come 2019.