An Anti-Star, Rising

Tuesday, May 13, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

The WTA keeps statistics in 10 different, significant categories, including aces, break points saved, second-serve return points won and such. (You can view them all here.) Serena Williams, Karolina Pliskova, Camila Giorgi, and Klara Koukalova are among the bewilderingly diverse group that leads one or more of these categories.

World No. 5 Simona Halep leads none of the 10 departments. Halep’s Romanian countrywoman Monica Niculescu, who’s currently ranked No. 78, tops one statistic—break points converted—and is third in two others. Yet Halep ranks no higher than fourth in any category—she's No. 4 in second-serve return points won—and finds herself listed in just two others (No. 9 in return games won, and No. 10 in service games won). Halep’s weapon of choice is the the serve, yet she isn’t in the top 10 of any serve-specific category (aces, first-serve points won, etc.).

There’s another category in which Halep is buried deep among the journeymen, and that’s the rating we might call Celebrity Index. Halep is a seven-time champion on the WTA, but she may be best known for having had breast reduction surgery in 2009 and the sundry controversies created by the reactions to that decision.

All sensitivities, prudish trepidations, and sophomoric jokes aside, the procedure appears to have been a contributing if not a determining factor in her success. On her first year on tour, 2009, Halep won her first ITF title; a year later, she successfully qualified for Roland Garros, all before turning 19. But she complained that her breasts left her “uncomfortable” during matches and compromised her playing ability.

Halep wasted no time moving on after her surgical procedure, but she didn’t turn into a Top 10 player overnight. Her progress can be plotted on a graceful, upward curve, not a spike. She reached the Top 100 in 2010, and she found herself on the cusp of the Top 50 in 2011. But her big year was 2013, when she ran the table at tournaments in Nürnberg, 's-Hertogenbosch, Budapest, New Haven, Moscow, and Sofia. She finished the year ranked No. 11 in the world.

Anyone who thought Halep just went around the world building and padding a resume in out-of-the-way places that better players chose to ignore was forced to think again at the start of this year. She beat former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic at the Australian Open before losing in quarterfinals to eventual finalist Dominika Cibulkova; then, just weeks later, she defeated, in order, Sara Errani, Agnieszka Radwanska, and Angelique Kerber to win her first Premier 5 title in Doha.

Now, Halep is fast becoming a regular in the later rounds of bigger tournaments. She reached the semifinals in Indian Wells and, last week, made the Madrid final. She won the first set from Maria Sharapova in that one, but lost in three.

It’s pretty obvious that Halep has become a significant force in the women’s game, yet nobody seems to know quite what to make of her. It would be easy at this point to condemn the media and pundits for ignoring yet another fine player whose greatest shortcoming is the failure to attract attention. But some of that is all-business Simona Halep’s own doing, and I’m not so sure she’d have it any other way.

Halep’s greatest strength is intimately bound up with her signature shortcoming, her basic lack of size. She’s only 5’6”, and admits to weighing 132 lbs. That means that a big server—a Serena, or Petra Kvitova—can do a lot of damage owing to Halep’s lack of wingspan. But any player who can’t take advantage of that, and even some who can (as Kvitova learned in Madrid), will be made to suffer because of the way Halep’s height and build enable allow her to maneuver deftly around the court.

Halep would skew toward the stocky if she were any less fit; as it is, she’s well-toned with smooth rather than starkly defined muscles. Halep has powerful quads, so it’s easy, and accurate, to think of her as a slightly smaller, fitter version of 5’8” Svetlana Kuznetsova. Like the two-time Grand Slam champ, Halep benefits from having a low center of gravity; at times she seems to roll as much as run around on the court.

The beauty of Halep’s game isn’t rooted in any particular shot, her style of play, or the image she projects. If anything, she’s one of those anti-stars who help put the vanity and presumptions of the divas on the tour into perspective. She’s a nose-to-the-grindstone worker, one of those players who, you suspect, is thankful to be paid as much as she gets for doing something that she also enjoys. If you were strolling by a court where she was practicing, nothing would scream out, “Stop and watch this!”  

In a way, that’s too bad, for Halep’s game has much to recommend. She’s an extremely well-balanced player despite her forehand being the more dangerous shot. Her mobility only enhances her ability to open up the court. Few players are as comfortable changing the direction of the ball as Halep, and seemingly with so little effort. She will go down the line whenever she danged well pleases. The shot isn’t some sort of volatile secret weapon, or potential game-changer that you trot out at your peril—it’s an element in her basic repertoire.

As well, Halep will come forward to volley when the opportunity presents itself. Her instincts are those of a great competitor on two levels: One, she has a great knack for doing what is called for in order to win the point. Not less than that, not more than that. Just that. And that’s a real gift. And two, she also gives away very little in the way of loose points.

It’s refreshing in this era of the blood-curdling shriek and the abuse of the clenched fist to see a player as basically undemonstrative as Halep. Like her rival Radwanska, she gives nothing away. She’s no drama queen or intimidator. What she is, though, is relentless, focused, multi-faceted, and mobile. It’s a pity there is no Top 10 list for those qualities, but as long as Halep is No. 5 in the mother of all categories, I doubt that she minds.

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