Madrid: Sharapova d. Halep

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There are big moments, key moments, clutch moments, and turnaround moments in tennis matches. In her 1-6, 6-2, 6-3 final-round loss to Maria Sharapova today in Madrid, Simona Halep showed us another one that’s just as common to the sport: the moment of hesitation.

Halep had done everything right in winning the first set from a confused and erratic Sharapova, and she seemed poised to keep doing the right things in the second. Down 0-1, she went up 15-40 on Sharapova’s serve. A break here and Halep would deny Sharapova a necessary change in momentum. Maybe Halep realized that herself, because she chose that moment to hit her two worst shots of the day to that point. Twice she pulled up on routine forehands and sent them long; twice she gave Sharapova a lifeline back into the match.

Sharapova, champion that she is, knew exactly how to take that assist and slam it home. Faced with a third break point in that game, she went for broke on a second serve and surprised Halep into another mistake. From there, with Halep hesitant and Sharapova finally settled, the match turned completely and never turned back.

This wasn’t a flawless performance from Sharapova—she hit 22 winners, made 30 errors, and double faulted eight times—but in a way that fact made her victory more impressive, and an especially good example of why she's a winner. Take two examples:

(1) Serving at 1-1 in the third set, Halep went up 40-0. On the second of those points, chair umpire Kader Nouni ruled that Sharapova couldn’t challenge a call because she had already made a move to play the point. He was right, but Maria briefly argued. Briefly is the operative word; rather than stubbornly pleading the merits of her case and letting herself be distracted, Sharapova simply shrugged it off (which isn’t as easy as she made it look). That allowed her to take advantage of a second moment of hesitation from Halep, in which she made three more forehand errors and gave away her 40-0 lead. Sharapova broke and was soon up 4-1.

(2) With the finish line in sight, it was Sharapova’s turn to hesitate. She played safely and sloppily for the next two games, and went to the next changeover ahead just 4-3. Rather than let the moment overwhelm her, Sharapova came out of that changeover and went with a decisive, percentage play—wide serve into deuce court, aggressive-but-sane backhand crosscourt to win the point. The hesitation was gone; she had settled herself again.

As for Halep, the player who had looked so unflappable through the week...well, she flapped. We saw today that under pressure, her forehand can break down, and when things started to unravel, she didn’t try to slow herself down, pump herself up, or change her tactics. Which seems odd: Halep was 7-0 in finals over the last year, and 7-0 in three-setters so far in 2014. Yet unlike Sharapova, she couldn’t find a way to rise to this occasion. Maria used all of her emotional energy, while Halep flat-lined.

Both women should come away from Madrid strengthened and feeling like contenders for the final two major events of the clay season, in Rome and Paris. Especially Maria: Today she won her second title in a row and her first in Madrid, and she moved up to No. 7 in the rankings. She also looked pretty happy doing it. Sharapova may realize that, when it comes to clay, even if she never beats Serena Williams again, she’ll be there to take advantage when someone else does.

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