The Roland Garros YouTube channel has a set of three short videos titled The Simona Story. They are called—in order—Paris Memories, Disappointment & Development and Final Pressures. They recap 2018 French Open champion Simona Halep’s part successful, part tumultuous history in Paris so far. There is no doubt that it is the Romanian’s favourite tournament, or that her game shines brightest on clay, but until the French Open last year (from 20 May-9 June this year), Halep had left France with a head full of what-ifs.
In that regard, Disappointment & Development leaves out one crucial detail. It gives her a chance to talk about her first Slam final there in 2014 against Maria Sharapova, an intense physical duel that Sharapova won in three sets over 3 hours. But the complete omission of her second final, the loss to Jelena Ostapenko in 2017, is conspicuous. It finds a lone mention in the video’s description. The memory is probably too painful even for the Roland Garros YouTube account.
In 2017, Halep was a set and 3-0 up on Ostapenko. She had one hand firmly on the trophy till the young Latvian upstart’s fearless game took over. By then, the doubters around Simona Halep in the tennis community outnumbered Halep’s own doubts. Could Halep win a Slam? Did she have the mental fortitude it takes?
Though not fully formed, Halep’s game in 2014 was already a potential Slam winner. It is 4-4 deuce in the second set of the 2014 French Open finals, first set to Sharapova. Sharapova is serving and the two players indulge in a side-to-side scramble that mirrors almost every point in the match. For most of the point, Halep tries to defend and finds herself out of position. But you won’t be able to tell from the geometry she creates with her shots. For a lethal Sharapova forehand, from the middle of the baseline, to Halep’s ad side, she is at full stretch. She is facing the tarp and the linesman, her back to Sharapova and both her hands on the court, trying to recover. The crowd goes ooooh.
What happens next is more outlandish tennis. Sharapova has a look at a mid-court short ball for a forehand, but Halep reads it, which makes it Sharapova’s turn to just hold out the racket. Halep, defending and chasing a ball placed behind her, manages to create an impossible angle from another awkward position. It throws off Sharapova. It gives Halep the inner belief to take the match to a deciding set. The commentator doles out a sober, “This is very encouraging.” You think?!
2017 and a second final is three years away.
The point illustrates Halep’s superior movement. One of Halep’s most celebrated abilities is her redirection of the ball. But it’s not just the ball’s movement she can redirect. Thanks to her height, the low centre of gravity helps her to redirect herself between the two ends of the baseline, a pattern that Halep, as Captain America would say, can do all day long. With her spry limbs, she can change direction faster than the opponent can spot the ball off her racket. It must help on today’s relatively slower courts. It certainly helps on clay more than on any other surface. Quick movement of limbs that could impinge a taller player, such as Karolína Plíšková, doesn’t bother Halep.
Halep’s game is far more complete today, especially on clay.
To challenge Halep, you need superior footwork (like Sloane Stephens, the player who almost beat Halep in last year’s Roland Garros final) or defend till kingdom come. Preferably both.
Louisa Thomas in The New Yorker noted how, staring down match point in the Australian Open 2018 final against Caroline Wozniacki—a player who simply refuses to be hit out of the court—Halep cracked a smile. That wasn’t the first time. A couple of days earlier, Halep had played one of her most important matches against German Angelique Kerber, another counterpuncher. On deuce at 5-4, Kerber was serving to stay in the match. She had saved two match points and a Halep unforced error gave her a game point. Halep’s attempted chip found the net. She looked at her box, smiled and gave a sarcastic racket clap.
The No.1 seed at the Australian Open then was without a clothing sponsor. During the Kerber match, Halep wore a visor bought on the Australian Open grounds with the tournament’s branding and her kit was a last-minute delivery from a seamstress in China, hastily and functionally designed by Halep herself.
By then, Halep’s issues with Slams and closing out matches had taken a funny turn. Even for her. Everything from 2014 had prepared her for such situations and she had decided to take them head on. Five months later, Roland Garros had to include a video with a happier ending.
Simona Halep slides into Roland Garros 2019 as the women’s singles defending champion and No. 3 seed. She may not be the outright favourite but not arriving with the No.1 ranking is likely to take some of the pressure off.
This year, Paris has budding clay courters who are in on the game’s secrets and a couple of others who have moulded their skills to learn to love clay. The former lot is headed by players such as Madrid winner Kiki Bertens and Sloane Stephens, while the latter consists of Rome champion Karolína Plíšková, Petra Kvitová and a dark horse in Belinda Bencic.
On this surface and at this level, however, Halep is more battle-hardened than all of them. One can rest assured that chapters will be added to The Simona Story—and with more smiles than disappointments