PARIS—Impeccable depth, power and precision off both her forehand and backhand were the external manifestations of Simona Halep’s prowess today. In the semifinals of Roland Garros, the 26-year-old Romanian earned a surprisingly emphatic 6-1, 6-4 victory over 2016 French champion Garbine Muguruza.
But as the world has seen so often, with Halep it’s the internal factors that best tell the story. It would be too simple for tennis matches to be decided solely by groundstrokes.
Consider the ethereal yet powerful concepts of confidence and faith. Similar? Different? How? Knowing which propelled which was a chicken-egg question.
If you’d posted as many fine results as Halep has over the past five years, you’d think confidence would abound. Confidence: belief based on data. Here Halep was, in the semis of Roland Garros, ranked number one in the world—ahead of best-ever Serena Williams, ahead of long-gone title holder Jelena Ostapenko, ahead of past winners Muguruza and Maria Sharapova.
But despite all that data, it remained a painful truth that confidence had taken Halep only so far—close enough to smell the possibilities, but not near enough to taste them.
As for the Muguruza match-up, the last time these two had played, in the finals of Cincinnati last August, Halep had lost 6-1, 6-0. Said Halep on that summer afternoon, “after a few games I got down with the confidence.”
Turn now to faith. Earlier this afternoon, there was Halep, perhaps tellingly enough on Court 13, engrossed in a pre-match hit with her coach, Darren Cahill. If Halep’s many late-match meltdowns have frequently revealed a woman deeply disturbed by an impending negative outcome, her practices tell another tale, a journey of process, technique, dedication and desire. “Be faithful in small things,” said Mother Theresa, “because it is in them that your strength lies.”
As Halep struck ball after ball versus Cahill, data vanished in the face of an impending high-stakes moment. Faith was what she needed versus Muguruza. Faith that the strokes she had honed so often in every corner of the world. You’ve learned plenty, the teacher told the student. Now, go play—and show us all you have learned.
That is precisely what Halep did from the start of this match. One approach versus Muguruza might be to try to lengthen the rallies and cajole the flat-hitting Spaniard into errors. Fueled more by that intangible dimension of faith, Halep took another path.
“I knew that I have to be aggressive like her,” Halep said. “I knew that she's gonna start the match with a lot of power. I was strong on the legs. Also I pushed her back. I feel like I played so well opening the court, as well, and also to hit the ball. So today I just hit the ball.”
The toxicity that had shackled Halep at the start of yesterday’s match versus Angelique Kerber was refreshingly banished. Halep’s technique and execution meshed exquisitely. She broke Muguruza in the opening game, held, broke serve and was soon up 5-0. In 39 minutes, she snapped up the first set, 6-1.
“She started playing very well immediately, and I wasn't able to reach the level that she was playing,” said Muguruza. “She made very few unforced errors, and she went high very fast. She played better and better.”
But as those who’ve seen her often know, Halep can be like a Seattle weather forecast: no matter how sunny things appear, rain is always in the forecast. The first drops came when Halep had her serve broken at 1-all in the second set. Upon losing that game, Halep smacked a ball with disdain, her first breach of faith. Muguruza, a sleeping giant at last awaken, began to assert herself, her harsh, flat, deep groundstrokes finding spots inches inside the lines. Honey, have you seen my slicker?
As the Spaniard went ahead 4-2, a third set seemed likely. Get out your umbrellas.
Now came the true test of faith. Could Halep sustain her intensity? Would her technique endure? This was the mysticism of sports—the unseen and the uncertain. With Muguruza serving at 4-3, Halep broke at 15.
The next game was marvelous, a seven-deuce, 20-point epic. Three times Muguruza held break point. Gathering clouds, even a clap of thunder. Each time, Halep’s mix of movement and committed ball-striking saved the day. At last, it was the Romanian who won the game.
The two were still on serve, but having won the tug-of-war in the previous game, Halep now held the rope in her hand. Oddly enough, on Muguruza’s first service point, she opted to serve and volley, sloppily netting a transition forehand. Next, a wide forehand from Muguruza, followed by a scorching inside-out forehand from Halep that elicited an error. A dazed Muguruza leaned on the ropes. On the first match point, Muguruza drove a backhand long. In 92 minutes, Halep had earned one of the most satisfying wins of her career:
Always crystal-clear in her pre-match focus, Halep had demonstrated that vision from the start—and, even more impressively, maintained fidelity once the storm made its inevitable approach.
With Halep now in her fourth Grand Slam singles final, public sentiment for her around the world will rise even higher. The world may worship a winner, but it even more loves a past loser on the hunt for redemption.
“Okay, let's make a deal,” said Halep. “I will play for the fans from all over the world, because I know that many are hoping me to win this Grand Slam finally. I will put everything I have Saturday on the court. I will think that I will make many people happy. So maybe I will have enough power to win it.”
And maybe also, enough faith to let herself pursue it.
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