Televised on-court coaching in WTA matches has been, at best, a marginally interesting experiment. But when Darren Cahill, who’s more family friend than formal coach to Sorana Cirstea, joined her on court on the changeover after she fell behind 2-6, 0-3 in the Rogers Cup final, the monologue he delivered was excellent and inspirational theater.
Of course, Cahill has become a staple in the ESPN commentary line-up, but I don’t believe he cared a whit whether or not this coaching interlude was broadcast. Cahill didn’t have a single word of technical advice for Cirstea, who was being out-hit, out-thought, and out-competed by Serena Williams about as fully as the score indicated. But he delivered one of the most impassioned and concise of calls to self-respect and pride that I’ve heard coming from the mouth of a tennis coach in a long time.
As Cirstea sat with head bowed, fighting back tears, Cahill spontaneously and forcefully beseeched her to continue to play with pride. He said all the right things about how anything could happen going forward. That it sure would be tough to get back into, given how Williams had lifted her game starting in the late stages of the first set. He acknowledged that the mission looked nearly impossible, the operative world being “nearly.”
While being realistic and refusing to sugar coat the situation, Cahill also reminded Cirstea how well she had played all week in crafting a series of praiseworthy upsets culminating with her semifinal win over Li Na.
“You made everyone believers,” he reminded her, suggesting that she muster the pride not to leave them thinking their support was misplaced or wasted. He basically reminded her that, whatever the final judgment of the scoreboard, she could finish the match, and the tournament, giving her all and taking pride in the effort.
In a young-adult novel, Cirstea might have bounced back to reel off six straight games, then win the match in a third-set tiebreaker. In reality, Williams continued to beat on her and finished her off, 6-2, 6-0. But while Cirstea clearly was overcome with emotion and fighting tears in the final moments of the match, she finished with her chin up and thus ended one of the best efforts a player ranked outside the Top 10 has mounted at a tournament this year.
For a while at the start, it looked like Cirstea might do even better than that. She had won no more than two games in any given set in her two previous meetings with the younger Williams sister, and had most recently been beaten by her at Roland Garros, 6-0, 6-2. But her go-for-broke style, which makes her more dangerous on faster surfaces, had been working all week. Give her credit to sticking to her guns instead of conceding that what worked against everyone else would not work against Williams.
That it generally does not work against Williams is one of the main reasons Williams has won 16 Grand Slam titles, and that only added to the woes of a young lady (Cirstea is just 23) playing in her first Premier-grade tournament. When she double-faulted twice to surrender the first game of the match, and lost the third game as well after a Williams hold, it was clear that while Williams was not playing her best tennis Cirstea was both in over her head and, simply, over-matched.
A ray of hope broke over the court for her fans when Cirstea broke Williams in the fourth game with a spectacular inside-out backhand winner and then held serve, but Williams put a stop to her drive with a hold and another break that produced a 5-2 lead. She held easily in the next game and it spelled the end of any threat Cirstea would mount.
Cirstea’s robust swings and willingness to trade rockets with Williams provided entertaining moments in the second set, but by the time Williams got that break for 3-love it was clear that Cirstea’s bravado, while not false, was threatened by her emotions. That’s when Cahill stepped in to provide what proved to be the most interesting moments of the match.
Stat of the match: Cirstea saved just three of the nine break points Williams had in the match.