Major Takeaway: Halep adjusts on the fly to soar past powerful Swiatek

Major Takeaway: Halep adjusts on the fly to soar past powerful Swiatek

It was an odd sight to see aggressive Iga Swiatek pressed for time, while the defensive two-time major champion was in her comfort zone on the quick Melbourne courts.

“So yeah, it’s tennis,” Iga Swiatek said with a smile after her 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 defeat at the hands of Simona Halep on Sunday. 

Tennis, as this match reminded us, doesn’t always work out the way you expect. You might think that the faster a court gets, the more it benefits the attacker. And if that’s true, it would be Swiatek, a tall and aggressive player, who would be helped more than Halep, who relies on her road-running defense. When they met on slow clay at Roland Garros last year, Swiatek didn’t give Halep any time to dig in and defend. Surely, she could do the same thing on a speedier hard court, right?

But that’s not what happened. Instead, it was Halep who used the pace of the surface to her advantage, by keeping the ball deep and hitting a heavier ball, so that it bounced up quickly on Swiatek. Rather than rushing Halep, Swiatek was the one who was rushed. To create her power, she uses long swings, especially on the forehand side. On this court, she didn’t have as much time to wind up for those shots as she did at Roland Garros, or as much time to set up and dictate the rallies. Which led to the odd sight of an attacking player looking like she was the one pressed for time, while the defensive player was in her comfort zone.

According to Halep, who started slowly, it was a two-step adjustment process.

“I thought before the match that I have to be a little bit more aggressive than in Paris,” she said. “In Paris, I have been very far back, and my ball didn’t go through the court.”

“But then I saw that I do some mistakes…I don’t like to do easy mistakes. And then I just step back a little bit. I did a step back, and I wanted just to open the court more to have more time and to roll the ball better.”

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What wasn’t surprising about this match was how the more experienced player was able to adjust on the fly, in a way that the younger player couldn’t. Swiatek came out determined to disrupt Halep’s rhythm. She rushed the net, she used the drop shot, she kept the ball out of Halep’s strike zone with her kick serve. And it worked beautifully, for a set. But when Halep took that step back and started hitting with more depth, Swiatek didn’t respond with an adjustment of her own. She kept trying to push forward and end the points quickly, even when the opportunity wasn’t there, and Halep kept making her pay for it. 

“I think, you know, she just played, like, really smart, and I have a lot of respect because it seems like she has a lot of options,” Swiatek said. “When something is not right for her, she just changes the tactics, and that’s great. But I think that’s the difference between the champions and less-experienced players, because I didn’t feel like I had many options.”

Swiatek never found a plan B the way Halep did. She kept swinging big, kept rushing forward, kept making errors—42 of them, to 17 for Halep. If there was a crucial point, and one that summed up the match, it came with Halep serving at 4-3, 30-30. This was Swiatek’s chance to earn a break point, but in her haste to make it happen, she came in a shot too soon and was forced to hit a low backhand volley. She left the ball short, and Halep was there for the forehand pass. The moment of tension had passed, and Halep cruised from there.

“Maybe I was playing too strong and risking too much,” Swiatek said, “but it was because she was just reaching every ball, and I had to finish five times in one rally.”

If there is a stat to remember from this match, it might be this one: Halep is 29, Swiatek is 19. Sometimes experience matters. As Swiatek said, “So that’s tennis”: It will surprise you in one way, but it will confirm your expectations in another. In this case, the result makes sense: Halep will move on to play Serena Williams, and Swiatek will tip her visor and say thanks for the lesson.