Halep has labored so many times in tennis matches that there should be a soap opera named after her. Call it “The Struggles of Simona,” complete with high hopes, a frequent turn into darkness, the search for light and her eternal effort to push the rock up a hill she herself had built earlier in the show. Perhaps there are identical twins. The Good Simona. The Bad Simona. Co-starring Darren Cahill as The Long-Suffering Coach, with special guest appearances from Romanians Virginia Ruzici as The Manager Who Cares and Ion Tiriac as The Wily Well-Wisher.
A past Roland Garros junior champion, Halep has twice lost three-set singles finals here. The first, to Maria Sharapova in 2014, would be titled, “A Great Effort,” Halep on that day in her first major singles final against Mighty Maria. But last year’s, versus 47th-ranked Jelena Ostapenko, was altogether different, Halep watching big leads in each of the last two sets slip through her fingers: “A Staggering Loss of Heartbreaking Proportions.”
The Dark Halep is known most for severe self-criticism. Picture her eyes, narrowed into slits. What words does Halep say to motivate herself? Or is that merely red-hot fury? This much is true, though: Halep does not quit. She’ll miss. Her serve will become a creampuff. She’ll go passive, or over-hit, or fail to take advantage of the opportunities created by her laser-sharp groundstrokes. But even as matches go away from her, she won’t vanish. Halep is a tennis player to her bones, persistently willing to pay the price—and as we’ve seen many times, this woman has indeed paid.
So as Halep walked to the baseline to serve at 0-4, it was easy to look up to the sky—or perhaps more accurately, down to the granular dirt know as red clay—and see the gathering cloak of darkness about to envelop. To that point, Kerber had been in control of everything, her lefty game a harsh jail-keeper. Angles, retrievals, power and, most of all, the depth off Kerber’s racquet had thoroughly oppressed Halep.
Said Halep, “It was a tough start. I think I missed too much. I wanted actually to do too much in the match. It was tough because her ball is very low, and you don't have many chances to finish the points from there.”
All Halep did next was win a game. Amid the Kerber parade, it seemed primarily symbolic, the aversion of a bagel as today’s episode wore on: Hopeless Halep.
That one game won the match for Halep.
Match point from Halep's win over Kerber at Roland Garros:
Halep broke in the next game, held again. Kerber held for 5-3, then moved to serve it out at 5-4. A trick of the mind in these situations is for a player to imagine that they’d just broken at 4-all and was now in a position to close out a tight set. Easier said than done. Kerber’s 4-0 lead was ancient history. No one had ever confused Kerber’s ability to serve out a set with that of Pete Sampras. Despite Kerber winning the first two points of that 5-4 game, Halep broke for 5-all. Soon it was 6-all. With Kerber serving in the tiebreaker at 4-2, Halep broke a racquet string, lost the point and soon enough had lost the set.
But she was already on the way to victory. There was no sign of the Dark Simona.
The first set had taken 64 minutes. The next two combined lasted only six minutes longer. Breaking Kerber at 15 to start the second set, Halep rapidly assumed control. She would handily win the next two sets, 6-3, 6-2.
In her post-match press conference, Halep admitted she’d started with a flawed game plan, but soon enough, found an effective route.
When I asked her to define the bad tactic and the good tactic, she first smiled, “The wrong tactic that I missed everything. And the right tactic was that I didn't miss any more.” Halep continued: “Well, I just changed that. I didn't play flat any more, more topspin, and I made her run a little bit more.”
Said Kerber, “It was a tough match, especially also physically. I mean, for me, like I said also few days ago, I'm not the best on moving on clay. So, yeah, this takes me a lot of energy when I'm moving on clay with the sliding.”
With Halep about to serve at 2-1 in the third, Kerber was treated for a blister on her left big toe.
But even more than send Kerber on the mover, Halep eroded the German’s technique. Kerber is tremendous at absorbing pace and driving the ball off both sides, particularly when she can wait to hit the ball just long to strike her lethal off-forehand. High and slow balls are much less comfortable for her. With impressive subtlety and exceptional opportunism, Halep began to bully Kerber all over the court. One key statistic: In the first set, Kerber won 56 percent of her second-serve points. In the second set, 38 percent. By the third, 21 percent. By late in the third, Kerber had been extensively unmasked by the relentless force of Halep’s groundstrokes.
Immediately after match point, Halep turned towards her box of friends and pointed her index finger to her head.
Asked why she’d done that, Halep said, “Because it was really about the mental. And also physical, for sure, but mental I was strong. And after losing that set, when I came back it was a little bit tough, but I stayed there. I stayed focused. I never gave up.”
It will be a whole other matchup for Halep in tomorrow’s semi versus 2016 Roland Garros champion and Wimbledon holder Garbine Muguruza. If Kerber versus Halep was a battle of plucky middleweights, Halep is at one level physically overmatched against the exceptionally forceful Spaniard. The last time these two played was last summer in the finals of Cincinnati, Muguruza winning 6-1, 6-0.
To which the Good Simona might well say: So what? August in Ohio is a whole other episode title than Paris in the Spring.
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