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In 63rd attempt, Alizé Cornet books full circle quarterfinal berth at Australian Open over Simona Halep
The sentimental favorite won over the Melbourne crowd with boundless energy and heartfelt candor in an on-court interview with Jelena Dokic.
Published Jan 24, 2022
WATCH: Cornet began her inspiring run to the quarterfinals with a major upset over Garbiñe Muguruza.
“I’m sorry for being so emotional,” says Alizé Cornet as she begins a milestone on-court interview, having just reached her first Grand Slam quarterfinal vis à vis three sets with two-time major champion Simona Halep, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4.
It is unclear whether her apology held any irony, as Cornet’s 18-year career has indeed become synonymous with émotions—the more meme-able, the better. So why apologize now?
Perhaps the feelings that flowed through Cornet in that moment carried special significance after a titanic battle that easily serves as a microcosm for her career. Many were likely left over from her last fourth-round appearance at the Australian Open when, as a teenager, she was mere inches from the last eight in an epic encounter with Dinara Safina.
On Rod Laver Arena to conduct the interview was former world No. 4 Jelena Dokic, who remembers that match as well as anyone; after all, she was going to play the winner.
“I wanted to play you so bad!” Cornet earnestly admits to laughter across Rod Laver Arena. “I loved your game and I was so excited to play a quarterfinal against you.”
Cornet soldiered on from that defeat, never missing a major tournament to amass a 60-Slam streak—one that could break an all-time record by the US Open.
The lack of a major breakthrough has haunted her at times, but the 32-year-old resolved not to obsess over the gap in her resume through an impressive first week in Melbourne and wins over WTA Finals champ Garbiñe Muguruza and Roland Garros semifinalist Tamara Zidansek.
It's never too late to try again. Alizé Cornet
“I think two years ago at the US Open it crossed my mind,” she recalled of another near miss, this time to Tsvetana Pironkova in 2020. “I was like, ‘Oh, that's probably one of the biggest chances; I have to make it.’ It made me—how do you say in English—when you get a little bit tight on the court. I don't want to do the same mistakes than before.”
Cornet has tried to channel her more errant emotions through meditation, a practice that inspired her to write a memoir about life on tour. Released in two languages, its French title translates to “Uncompromising.”
“Life is about accepting who you are, and I tried to live as myself,” she told me last summer. “It’s not easy to be a sensitive person on tour, but I think I did a pretty good job of keeping my feet on the ground.”
She somehow stayed grounded through two and a half hours against Halep—who rode a nine-match winning streak into Monday’s match but whom Cornet had thrice beaten in four previous attempts—in the sweltering Melbourne heat. Outrallying the Romanian, she edged ahead by a set and a break only to see seven straight games go against her and a deciding set soon underway.
Where emotions have typically taken over for Cornet, she found a rainbow-colored calm and broke Halep from 30-0 down, earning two match points shortly thereafter.
Herself overawed by the heat, Halep released her Fighter Girl alter ego long enough to extend the match with some daring shots and force the Frenchwoman to serve for the match.
The symmetry was inescapable: here was Cornet, in the exact same position she failed to convert 13 years ago. History appeared doomed to repeat when she began the game with a drop shot into the net. Undaunted by the inauspicious start, she thrilled the crowd with a statement backhand pass and held her nerve when a heat-exhausted Halep resorted to moonballing at 30-all.
She dropped to her knees after one last forehand miss from the former No. 1, and from there came the emotions that were on display at the microphone—at least some of which she cryptically promised to explain later. Was a retirement announcement forthcoming?
Cornet put on an impeccable encore, delivering a signature mix of humor and pathos that culminated with applause, but not for herself. As the interview concluded, she directed a heartfelt message back at Dokic, who had opened up about personal struggles prior to the tournament.
“For how you moved on in your life, I think we can all congratulate you,” she says. “You were an amazing player, and now you’re an amazing commentator.”
Though Cornet may never be accused of disliking drama, that she ensured space be made space for a friend in need—even as she stood at her career zenith—speaks to an athlete more than her émotions, one who able to endure 60-odd setbacks and emerge from them with as strong a character as any ostensibly more accomplished champion.
“It’s never too late,” reminds the newly-minted major quarterfinalist, “to try again.”