PARIS—So far, the women’s event at Roland Garros has been about markers, and which contender can put the most impressive one down before they all collide in the second week. Garbiñe Muguruza beat a Grand Slam champion, Sam Stosur, 6-0, 6-2. Maria Sharapova beat the No. 6 seed, Karolina Pliskova, 6-2, 6-1. Sloane Stephens stopped an up-and-comer, Anett Kontaveit, in her tracks, 6-2, 6-0. Madison Keys hasn’t lost a set yet. Serena Williams? She set her own kind of standard with her Wakanda catsuit.
The one woman who hadn’t made many waves with her play so far was the top seed, Simona Halep. She had survived a slow start in her first round, and spent her third match toiling in the overcrowded, newfangled boondocks known as Court 18, a place where few No. 1 players will likely ever be exiled again. On Monday, though, it appeared that Halep would face a test from Elise Mertens. The 22-year-old Belgian had been one of the stories of the spring, winning two titles and cracking the Top 20. At 5’9”, it seemed that Mertens might have the height and power to press the action against Halep, something the Romanian can struggle to counter.
Through the first three games, Mertens was up for the challenge. She traded forehands, backhands, and drop shots, and owned the more potent serve. But instead of intimidating Halep, or making her bang her strings, throw her arms in the air, and rush from point to point in frustration—as she often does—Mertens’ good tennis only inspired better tennis from Halep.
WATCH—Simona Halep's post-match interview at Roland Garros:
Rather than settling into a defensive posture, Halep, extending through her shots and driving them with depth and flat pace, fought fire with fire from the first ball of each rally, and looked to move forward whenever she could. Her backhand returns and crosscourt groundstrokes were especially precise and penetrating, and her swing volleys were hit with leaping freedom and confidence. Instead of letting Mertens press her, Halep took away Mertens’ time, and used her size against her by moving her from side to side. It’s rare to see Halep so upbeat, so early in a match; she even fist-pumped after winning a point that only got her back to deuce on Mertens’ serve—that’s virtually Rafa-esque in its commitment to positivity. And it worked: Halep broke Mertens—both her serve and her spirit—two points later.
“I think it was a great match, and the way I played gives me confidence that I did everything well until now,” Halep said. “I played [her] in Madrid and I felt that she’s very aggressive. She wants to play fast, so I think today I did the same thing. I was little bit stronger in the important moments.”
“I don’t have that much power,” Halep said, echoing a familiar—and possibly overstated—lament of hers, “but if I play fast I feel like I improve a little bit more in my game, and that’s the plan.”
Mertens could only admit the obvious afterward: She had been given a lesson in top-tier tennis.
“She was very strong today. For me, it was too high a level,” the 16th seed said. “I wanted to be too aggressive, but she was everywhere...But it’s also very good for me, because it highlights what I have to improve on. I know the Top 10 is another level, but I’m almost there at the global level, but not yet.”
Halep, the two-time Roland Garros runner-up, has laid down her marker. If she maintains that level, with that kind of positivity, it will be hard for anyone not named Serena to match it.
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