Amanda Anisimova had reached that moment, the one that she and everyone else in Court Philippe Chatrier knew would come. For the last hour, the 17-year-old American had run the defending French Open champion, Simona Halep, side to side and up and back. She had pelted forehands and backhands past her with consummate ease. She had seemed to know exactly where the Romanian would run next, and had hit the ball to the only spot on the court where she couldn’t reach it. One of her clean, wrong-footing winners had inspired the Roland Garros TV commentator, Richard Evans, who has covered this tournament since the 1950s, to exclaim, “Now that’s how you play tennis!” After 11 games, Anisimova led 6-2, 3-0.
But there was no way that Halep, who had reached the last two French Open finals, was going to let the kid off that easily. There was no way she wouldn’t mount a comeback, no way Anisimova, a rookie making her Chatrier debut, wouldn’t have to come face to face with her nerves, and find a way to play through them. It’s a rite of tennis passage.
The moment came at 4-4 in the second set. Over the previous 15 minutes, Halep had worked her way into the match, and Anisimova’s shots had begun to miss their targets. Anisimova stared toward her coach; her eyes widened with anxiety; her normally cool surface demeanor was roiled by emotions for the first time. She let a 40-15 lead slip to deuce, and then break point for Halep.
On the next point, Anisimova tossed the ball and caught it, tossed it and caught it again; she had lost control of her arm, and seemed about to lose control of the match. Rather than rip a ground stroke, as she had on virtually every point, Anisimova played it safe and looped a rally ball deep. She put it in the right spot, apparently, because Halep, weirdly and uncharacteristically, pulled up on her next forehand and fluttered it weakly into the net. The Romanian stared at the clay in front of her and raged at what she believed was a bad bounce.
Had the tennis gods intervened on Anisimova’s behalf? Had she saved that break point with luck or skill? The often-unstated truth is that sometimes we need to see an opponent make a mistake, to see that she is also nervous, before we can relax ourselves.
Whatever happened on Halep’s miss, the moment of panic for Anisimova had passed. She held serve and broke with yet another laser-like backhand winner that Halep couldn’t reach. With her 6-2, 6-4 win secure, Anisimova’s racquet flew out of her hands as she flashed a look of pure disbelief at her player box.
“I don’t think it will sink in, at least not for today,” said Anisimova, who at the start of the tournament felt honored just to be able to practice in the big stadium.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s crazy. I really can’t believe the result today. And getting the opportunity to play against Simona, that’s amazing, but how it ended is even crazier to me.”
Her temporary shock aside, Anisimova had prepared for this. She had prepared by practicing her forehand and backhand, of course, but she also knew they wouldn’t be enough if she found herself on Chatrier, against the defending champion. She knew she would need to do more than just swing away and rip ground strokes; she would also need to hit them when she was so tight she could barely move her shoulder, or toss the ball to serve.
“Definitely that’s something I work on, just being composed, because that’s when I play my best tennis, when I’m not really nervous,” Anisimova said. “I think I have done a better job. Like, I’ve practiced it. I tried to put myself in difficult situations and try to face challenges and try to calm down when that happens. It’s definitely a big thing in tennis. It’s definitely what I’ve been working on.”
Listening to her off court, you might think that staying composed wouldn’t be a problem for Anisimova, who says her friends tease her for having a “monotone voice.” Where her fellow Russian-turned-Floridian Sofia Kenin is feisty and demonstrative, Anisimova is laid back. Born in New Jersey to parents from Moscow, she moved with them to Florida at 3, so her older sister, Maria, also a tennis player, would have more opportunities to train.
If the unassuming Amanda was just along for the ride at first, she has quickly switched to the tennis fast track. While her parents, Konstantin and Olga, try to limit her play and keep her from burning out, Anisimova’s powerful 5'11" frame and precise timing have made it impossible to hold her back—in her easygoing way, she’s broken through all the restraints. At a time when teen tennis champions seemed to be a thing of the past, she is one. It’s not surprising that the last player to win a Grand Slam at 17, Maria Sharapova, is Anisimova’s idol.
Like Sharapova, Anisimova is working to improve her movement. Her long legs don’t make her a natural speedster or defender; she’ll likely always win on the strength of her shot-making. But like Sharapova, Anisimova has also shown a sudden and surprising comfort on clay this year. Before playing the Bogota event in April, she hadn’t won a WTA match on dirt; by the end of the week, she had her first and so far only tour title, and now she’s in the semifinals of the French Open.
That’s rare air for someone her age, and Anisimova admitted today that when she saw some of her old friends in the junior tournament at Roland Garros, she suffered a pang of nostalgia.
“It was just, like, a fun environment and everyone was just hanging out,” she said of her carefree junior days. “It’s kind of different in the WTA. I don’t have that many friends, I’d say.”
Not that she would trade those days for her life now. When Anisimova watched her last backhand skid past Halep on Thursday, all notions of nostalgia had vanished. Her moment had come, and, in her own cool way, she had blasted right through it.