Halep's fervid, fighting self saved her against Zhang at Wimbledon

Halep's fervid, fighting self saved her against Zhang at Wimbledon

“Every time the ball comes to me, I feel like I know what to do with it, which is important," said the Romanian.

“I’m a different person. Everything changed,” Simona Halep said after her 7-6 (4), 6-1 win over Shuai Zhang at Wimbledon on Tuesday. “It’s a new year, new edition.”

If you’ve followed Halep’s career with any degree of regularity, you know that the Romanian has made this statement, or something approximating this statement, many times before. By now, there must not be any new leaves left in Halep’s front yard for her to turn over.

She’s not the first tennis player to try to put her old, flawed self in the rearview mirror. Like everyone else who has ever played the sport, Halep has vowed to stay calmer on court, to enjoy the moment rather than worry about the result, to stop getting down on herself, to forget the past and think only about the future. And like the rest of us, she has gone back to being herself: Gutsy and temperamental, dogged and dramatic, a brawler and a perfectionist all at once. Over the course of a match, Halep will put herself through the full range of traditional tennis-player emotions. What doesn’t change—no matter how many times she claims otherwise—is her volatility. And it shouldn’t: Halep’s fury and fervor for the sport gets her in trouble on some days, but it gets her out of trouble just as often. On Tuesday, it was the latter. 

Through the first six games and 30 minutes, Zhang had her way with the rallies. The 30-year-old Chinese woman, who had beaten Halep in two of their previous three meetings, hit the ball harder, deeper, and closer to the lines. While Halep is an expert at redirecting the ball down the line, Zhang was even better at it. She went up 4-1, and had four break points to get to 5-1. Halep has thrown first sets away at Slams in the past; this time it didn’t look like she was going to have any choice in the matter.

“I was a little bit nervous before the match, a little bit stressed,” Halep said. “I knew that she’s going to come and hit the balls very strong. Also, when she hits them the ball doesn’t bounce that much. It’s really tough to return. But I kept fighting.”

At 4-1, Zhang started missing forehands; not by much, but the shots that she had been lasering into the corners began to misfire by a few inches. That was just enough for Halep; seeing her opponent come down to earth seemed to inspire her to hang in the rallies no matter what. She saved a break point with a good body serve, and then survived the most important point of the match, a long, exhausting, corner-to-corner affair; when Halep finally won it, she held her fist up in silent celebration. The match had turned.

“Winning that [game,], I really believed I’m still in the set,” Halep said. “If the score would have been, like 5-1, I think the set would have been gone. I just kept motivating myself and believed that I can turn it around.”

“I knew that I have to be strong and not going back too much from the court. So I stayed a little bit more aggressive.”

From that moment until the end of the set, Halep and Zhang slugged it out in one frenetic rally after another. Neither tried to change the pace, mix in slices, go for drop shots—it was strictly toe to toe. When it came to pace, Halep was still outgunned, but she had her teeth in the points now, and she finally pulled away in the tiebreaker. The forehand winner she hit at 6-4 in the tiebreaker gave her the first set, and the second set as well. Zhang didn’t have anything left.

Halep says that the biggest difference between this particular New Simona and the old Simona is her attitude toward grass. The consensus is that the surface is playing more slowly than in recent years (this is also something that tennis fans have heard many times before). If so, Halep, who likes clay and likes to grind, would figure to benefit.

“I started to feel comfortable on the court,” she said today. “I didn’t slide at all this tournament. It’s a little bit dangerous when you play on grass because the feet are not really stable as you are on hard court or clay court. That’s why I prefer those surfaces. But now I started to feel it, to have it in my hands, to have it in my legs, and also in my mind, which is very important.”

“Every time the ball comes to me, I feel like I know what to do with it, which is important.”

Halep will move on from one player who has had success against her in the past, Shuai Zhang, to another, Elina Svitolina, in the semifinals—the Romanian is 2-4 against the Ukrainian. Whether or not this really is a New Simona, that’s a past she really is going to want to forget if she’s going to make her first Wimbledon final.