MELBOURNE—The 1993 movie Groundhog Day starred Bill Murray as a jaded TV weatherman forced to repeat the same day over and over and over until he at last discovered his humanity. It takes place in a small Midwestern town.
Tennis’ version of Groundhog Day happens in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York. The star is world No. 1 Simona Halep, perpetually engaged in an early round struggle at a Grand Slam tournament. But in contrast to Murray’s cool, cynical character, Halep’s burden is that she is all too human, the joy and anguish she brings to her craft bubbling like a dormant volcano. In Melbourne, Halep has twice lost in the first round in the last three years. At her most recent Grand Slam, the 2018 US Open, Halep went out in the first round for the second year in a row.
So in the kind of cruel justice-redemption cycle tennis zealots relish, it was fitting that Halep would kick off her 2019 Grand Slam campaign versus the woman who’d beaten her in New York, Kaia Kanepi.
“Big challenge,” were Halep’s two words to describe the matchup. “First round of Grand Slam is not easy. Losing against her in US Open, so it was a bit of pressure on my shoulders.”
This evening, over the course of two hours and 11 minutes—approximately the length of many a feature film—Halep avenged that loss, 6-7 (2), 6-4, 6-2.
Before it began, as Halep stretched in the hallway in front of her posse, she was ebullient, eager to take the court for the first time in 2019. At 1-all in the first set, a Kanepi double-fault opened the door. But swift getaways are not Halep’s way, who was immediately broken at love.
Through the early stage of this match, had you no idea who was ranked No. 1 and who was No. 71, you’d select Kanepi as the top seed. Halep, at heart a formidable middleweight in the manner of such fine fighters as David Ferrer and Lleyton Hewitt, often stood helpless versus Kanepi’s deep drives.
Many tennis players have certain opponents who bring out the best in them. It might be the occasion, the venue or, more precisely, the way that opponent’s ball, movement and shot selection meshes ever-so-nicely with that player’s own skill set. One word describes this perfect fit: pigeon. Were this a dinner party, Halep would have been the one serving fine food, Kanepi the guest chomping up the cheese platter and utterly dominating the conversation.
For a good portion of this match, Kanepi feasted on Halep. It didn’t matter who held which ranking. It didn’t matter that Halep had reached the finals here a year ago and then, at Roland Garros, went on to at last earn her first Grand Slam singles title. All that mattered was the ball, a fuzzy, yellow, memory-free object that Kanepi pounded into one corner after another.
“At one point I didn't know what to do any more because the ball was coming so strong,” said Halep. “I know that she's hitting the ball very strong, is going to take time to get the leading in the match.”
As the set migrated towards a tiebreaker, Halep’s appealing pre-match sunshine slowly saw the entry of her trademark cloud coverage. Call this the Simona Sulk, a visual dismay, accompanied by racquet-wielding passivity. Kanepi played an exemplary tiebreaker, a splatter-blast of depth and pace, closed out with a delicate half-volley winner.
At this stage, witnessing the active underdog dictating play versus the passive favorite inside a sultry Margaret Court Arena, my mind migrated to a cool Swiss living room, where I thought about Martina Hingis, a player merely one inch taller than Halep.
Recalling the textured, layered and eclectic way Hingis built points—an unchained medley of spin, pace, position and power—I pondered her joining forces with the currently coach-less Halep. Hingis’ first question: Why do you make things so hard on yourself?
My belief is that many of Halep’s woes have their roots in her development, in the narrow way she and the instructors of her youth constructed a severely rigid and limited playing style, one built mostly around extraordinary movement and surefire, flat ball-striking. Should either of those not be working, how else can Halep derail an inspired opponent?
So it came to pass that Kanepi served at 7-6, 2-1 and held a point for 3-1. At this stage, one wondered: Why hadn’t Kanepi ever been ranked higher than No. 15? True, since that 2012 pinnacle, she’d faced a series of major health problems, including Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis in both feet, as well as a struggle with Epstein-Barr virus, an autoimmune illness.
Then came the answer, in the form of three Kanepi errors worthy of your tennis club on a Saturday afternoon—a benign forehand lined into the net, a potential sitter sprayed nearly into the stands and, finally, a double-fault to bring Halep even at 2-all.
From there, toothpick-by-toothpick, Halep assembled—if not with brilliance, but certainly with effectiveness. With Kanepi serving at 4-5, it took Halep four set points to level the match. Here again, queries from the theoretical coach Hingis: How come you never drop shot? Why not occasionally sneak into net and angle a volley? Unfortunately, such a picture of the court rarely enters Halep’s mind.
Where she excels, though, is with her grit, an engaged Halep a whirlwind of movement that can often trigger errors. With Kanepi serving at 2-3, 40-0, Halep was the Highway Patrol of Margaret Court Arena. The Simona Sulk had been dispatched, replaced by the inner drive that makes Halep popular. From this point, Kanepi lost five straight points with a slew of errors off seemingly makeable balls. It was now 4-2 for Halep, who from there won eight of the next ten points.
“I just thought that I have to be strong on the legs, to be there closer to the line,” said Halep. “If I was going back, I did not have a chance to return the balls. Then I stepped into the court few times and I was more aggressive, which was really important.”
The final tally would show 62 unforced errors for Kanepi, to just 19 for Halep. But when faced with someone able to cover the court as well as Halep—movement indeed not reaction but bonafide weapon—what truly constitutes an unforced error? Her fingers once again dangling off the cliff, Halep this time had been able to pick herself up from the near-abyss and make the climb. If such labor is hardly what we expect to see from a world No. 1 in a first-round match, it’s still a win—and Halep’s first match victory since last August.
“I didn't give up, which was really important tonight,” said Halep. “I think that's why I could win the match.”
“When Chekhov saw the long winter,” said Murray in Groundhog Day, “he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.”
Trade out winter for summer and you have the tale of Simona Halep, splendidly human, at once a source of frustration and endearment.
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