It wouldn’t be a Grand Slam if there wasn’t early round drama starring Simona Halep. The Romanian has repeatedly struggled in the opening stages of many a major, grappling with a spectrum of opponents–the one across the net, the one she sees in the mirror, and even, at times, castigating her coach and support team as a hostile force. Often sunny in victory, Halep in danger is a dark sight to behold.
So it came as no surprise to see Halep imperiled during her second round Australian Open match. Up against Australian Ajla Tomljanovic, the No. 2 seed went down 5-2 in the third set.
But as Tennis Channel analyst Lindsay Davenport noted tonight on TC Live, Halep “can find the extra gear.” That she did. Fitness, movement, and forceful ball-striking helped Halep win the next five games to earn a 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 victory. Yet again, Halep had rallied from the brink.
One of Halep’s endearing qualities is her intellectual honesty. Assessing what took place before and during the match, she said, “I felt already nervous before the match and probably that's why. I was talking non-stop, and I was talking negative. And also I have to apologize to my team because I was very negative with them. But, you know, it happens, and we talked after the match and Darren said that you looked like old Simo. I said, 'No, I have improved in something. I was fighting till the end.' And he agreed with me.”
These comments were accompanied by the trademark Halep smile. It’s hard to imagine a wider gap in pro tennis than the one that separates the upbeat Simo from the anguished Halep. For some players, early round matches take on the form of routine business. For Halep, even after she has earned two Grand Slam singles titles, they continue as crusades, apocalypse or redemption constantly lurking in the corridors of her mind, seemingly a mere two good or bad rallies away.
Champions appear impregnable. They contend, ascend, preside. At least it appears that way. But as Halep reveals year after year, they also have human qualities. “The times are not easy for everybody, so the mental part is paying a lot of work this period, and we will see day by day,” said Halep. “So I don't really feel like the top players will win every match this period.”
The Romanian’s struggles summon up something Billie Jean King once told me, “The better players? All we do is choke ten percent less.” It would be fascinating to learn what Halep makes of that statement. Best, though, to ask her after a win.