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Simona Halep's withdrawal from the US Open is a painful one
Tennis is better when the Romanian is playing it well. On her title run in Prague, and the state of play now that she won’t be in New York.
Published Aug 17, 2020
We’ve all been patiently waiting for tennis to return. Some of us, maybe a majority of us, have also been patiently waiting for Simona Halep tennis to return.
Simona Halep tennis, in case you had forgotten over the last five months, is some of the most entertaining around. Thoroughly entertaining: Halep gives us a little bit of everything that makes the sport fun to watch. She’s speedy and dynamic. She’s a clean and aggressive ball striker; her down-the-line backhand, in particular, is one of the sport’s great shots. She’s consistent and creates rhythm in her rallies. And drama always follows in her 5’6” wake. One minute she looks ready to quit the sport forever; the next she’s raising her first in front of her face to punctuate a winning shot; a few minutes after that, she’s exulting in her trademark victory celebration—arms raised over her head, face pointed at the sky, a smile of joy and relief plastered across it. Halep can’t hide the fact that she cares, and that makes us care about her. She’s in a constant battle to believe in herself and get the most out of herself, and she takes us along for the ride.
I’ve always said that tennis is better when Simona Halep is playing it well. Which makes this a particularly bittersweet moment in the 2020 season.
The sweet part is that we just spent a week watching her play well at the Prague Open. In her first tournament back, she won her 21st career title. Her five matches ran the Halep emotional gamut. It took her seven match points to close out Polona Hercog in her opener. She was down a set, and seemingly ready to head home, before rallying to beat Barbora Krejcikova in the second round. Then, with the rust gone and her belief back, she didn’t drop another set in her wins over Magdalena Frech, Irina-Camelia Begu, and Elise Mertens.
In the final, against Mertens, Halep reminded us of another reason why she’s a pleasure to watch. She’s flexible enough to play more than one way.
“I’m very pleased about the way I was adjusting to her game,” Halep said after her win over Mertens. “At the beginning, I was hitting too strong, too flat, and she was quicker than me, and playing closer to the baseline. I tried to change the rhythm, played a little bit higher and further from her body, and it was much better.”
Along the way on Sunday, she gave us a few classic Simona moments. My favorite came when she was up 0-40 on Mertens’ serve in the first set. After hitting a backhand 10 feet long, her first reaction was to look in the direction of her player box and shout something. Before she could open her mouth, though, she must have remembered she was still up 15-40, because she stopped herself, patted her skirt down, and moved onto the next point. But when she lost that one, too, she couldn’t help herself any longer. This time she stared at her team and raised her arm up in frustration, as if to say, “Can’t you coach me any better than that?”
So much for the sweet part of Halep’s return; now for the bitter part. Twenty-four hours after winning in Prague, she announced that she won’t be coming to Flushing Meadows to play the US Open or the Western & Southern Open.
“After weighing all of the factors involved and with the exceptional circumstances in which we are living, I have decided that I will not travel to New York,” Halep said in a statement. “I have always said I would put my health at the heart of my decision, and I therefore prefer to stay and train in Europe.”
From the start of the pandemic, Halep has been up front about her fears concerning the virus; in that, she’s as honest and relatable as she is on the court. It’s a bummer that she won’t be here, but you can’t blame her.
Perhaps even more so than world No. 1 Ash Barty, Halep, a two-time Grand Slam champion, is the highest-profile pullout from the women’s event. With her withdrawal, six of the current Top 10 won’t be at the Open. No. 5 Elina Svitolina, No. 6 Bianca Andreescu, No. 7 Kiki Bertens and No. 8 Belinda Bencic will also be absent. Two weeks ago, it looked as if the women’s draw would hold firmer than the men’s; that’s not true today.
For those who do make the trip to New York, opportunities will abound. Karolina Pliskova will be the No. 1 seed, and will have a chance to win her long-sought first major. Sofia Kenin will be the No 2 seed, and will be gunning to win her home-country Slam. All eyes, of course, will be on No. 3 seed Serena Williams. Is this moment when she finally gets elusive No 24? She likely won’t see a draw as wide-open as this one again.
Even without many of its leading ladies, the show will go on, and there will be drama in New York. But there won’t be quite as much without Halep. Tennis is better when she’s playing it well. The good news is, once the Open is over, it looks like she’ll be playing it well for us again.