This week at Roland Garros, a journalist has been asking top players whether they’ve “ever played the perfect tennis match,” and “whether it’s possible to play an absolutely perfect tennis match.”
Some pros have, naturally enough, denied that it’s doable. Rafael Nadal summed up the consensus when he said that one of the great things about tennis is that you never need to play flawlessly. The perfect match, for Rafa, is the one you win.
Simona Halep, the No. 1 seed on the women’s side, is a perfectionist at heart, so maybe it’s not surprising that she had a different view on the subject. When she was asked if she had ever played a perfect match, she said that, as a matter of fact, she had: Her 55-minute win over Serena Williams in last year’s Wimbledon final.
“I sit down and I try to analyze what I did wrong and what I did less good,” Halep said, smiling at the memory. “Doesn’t exist.”
“So that match is perfect.”
It’s hard to argue with her; there’s really no way to improve on beating Serena 6-2, 6-2 on Centre Court, with the whole world watching. But how about beating Amanda Anisimova 6-0, 6-1 on Court Philippe-Chatrier in the third round at Roland Garros, as she did on Friday? Halep won’t remember this match for as long, but in so thoroughly turning the tables on the player who knocked her out here last year, she came pretty close to perfection. Halep even beat her time from Wimbledon by sending Anisimova off in 54 minutes.
Halep won 60 points and lost 34, and made just seven errors to her opponent’s 32. She broke Anisimova’s serve six times, and saved all five break points she faced. Halep, who skipped the US Open, says she has been playing almost exclusively on clay for months now, and the work shows. She showed off all her innate dirt-baller’s skills today. She defended with long slides across the backcourt. She hit her returns with pace and depth. She changed directions with her ground strokes constantly, and seemed to be literally playing and running circles around the flummoxed American. Halep even raced in and stuck a backhand volley, like a net-rusher of old. Anisimova was too startled to catch up to it.
“I took the match in my hands,” Halep said. “Last year [when she lost to Anisimova] I was very far from the court, and I played fairly short so she could play her game…So today I did a great job of changing a little bit the tactic.”
Yet when Halep reached match point for the first time, she sent a backhand long. Even today, she couldn’t let this imperfection go unaddressed: Halep glared across the court at her coach, Darren Cahill, and flicked her hand dismissively in his direction—a classic gesture every Simona fans knows well.
Halep’s perfectionism, the difficulty she has in accepting even a meaningless mistake, can be a hindrance to her game. One miss can quickly lead to two or three, as her frustration gets the better of her and she begins to rush from one point to the next. This will probably always be a trait of hers, one that Cahill can manage but never eliminate.
Halep's post-match on-court interview after her third-round victory:
And he probably shouldn’t try to eliminate it. Halep’s perfectionism may get her in trouble in the short term in some matches, but in the long term it’s what keeps driving her. Most players, even the most competitive among them, have days when they can’t find the fight inside them. That has rarely happened to Halep in the many years she’s been at the top of the game. She may get negative, may get down on herself, may lose matches she shouldn’t lose, but it’s almost never for lack of desire. That’s what has kept her in the Top 10 so steadily for so long. That’s what makes all of her matches worth watching.
“I got better after that match from last year,” Halep said, comparing her loss to Anisimova from 2019 with her win today. “I was very disappointed, and if I remember really well because of the way I played; not because I lost the match. Because she was really, really strong at that time, but I let her play her best.”
“So in my mind was what I have to do better to get better in the direction of my game,” she added. “So I improved a lot, and definitely I am much better in many ways since last year.”
Halep believes perfection exists, even if it only comes once in a career. That can be a dangerous attitude for a tennis player; John McEnroe believed something similar, and his pursuit of the flawlessness he could see in his head nearly drove him insane at times. But it also drove Johnny Mac to the pinnacle of the sport, and it’s what keeps Halep there today.