by Matt Zemek
Simona Halep’s tennis career is immensely complicated, so it is entirely fitting that the final match of her 2018 Australian Open — like her whole fortnight in Melbourne — was no less complex.
Entering this tournament, Halep’s most recent memory from a significant tennis tournament was her disappointing failure to reach the semifinal round of the WTA finals. It was one thing to get demolished, 2 and 0, by Caroline Wozniacki — the Dane was on fire that week in Singapore. There was no shame in being dismantled by a hot player, the same player who showed up in Melbourne after her second-round escape against Jana Fett. Halep’s shortcomings at the WTA Finals emerged in her final group-stage match against Elina Svitolina. Halep was playing for a berth in the semifinals, while Svitolina was guaranteed a ticket home after two losses. While it is often tricky to play an opponent who has nothing to lose, Halep — having just been torched — had two days to think about what she needed to improve on. That she couldn’t find answers against Svitolina was the much more damning part of her week. A World No. 1 player — who delivered an excellent performance in Beijing by avenging painful 2017 losses to Maria Sharapova and Jelena Ostapenko — should have been able to not necessarily beat Svitolina, but certainly play well on that evening. The fact that Halep ran out of inspiration and answers recalled past episodes from her career in which she surged in a tournament, only to then stumble and reduce the amount of satisfaction she took from the journey. One particular case in point: her flat-as-a-pancake 2015 U.S. Open semifinal loss to Flavia Pennetta.
As was the case with the Svitolina match in Singapore, the problem for Halep was not the end reality of losing; it was that she didn’t play well. Tennis is cruel to the athlete when that athlete plays well and loses, but the athlete can only look inward when she doesn’t play well herself. Halep has accumulated enough of those losses to draw especially critical scrutiny from fans and pundits. Those moments — one could argue — should not be conflated with Halep’s many “valiant losses,” such as her 2016 U.S. Open quarterfinal against Serena Williams, or her 2017 Wimbledon quarterfinal loss to Jo Konta, but for many, they are hard to separate from her particularly puzzling defeats.
Halep has continuously put herself in the hunt at important tournaments, and in 2017, she was a model of consistency in terms of quarterfinal- or semifinal-level results from one tournament to the next, precisely why she became No. 1 and earned the year-end No. 1 ranking. Yet, in those late-stage matches, Halep much more often failed than succeeded. Moreover, some of those moments of failure were marked by the negative body language she has so often shown in important matches, sometimes when leading on the scoreboard. At the top of the list: Halep’s marked discomfort midway through the second set of the Roland Garros final against Ostapenko, despite her one-set lead. One could see Halep through a television screen, feeling the weight of the moment instead of embracing it.
This is what the Romanian carried into Melbourne at the start of 2018 — not a penchant for trying insufficiently, but a tendency to lose faith when victory was well within her grasp. Halep didn’t have an effort problem; she had a trust problem. She could reset the dial when she went from one tournament to the next, but in most instances, when she arrived at the latter stages of a tournament, she was hardly the picture of the serene, calm and knowing relaxation of a person completely at home in her own skin. That, more than anything else, has followed her over the past four years on tour since she burst into the spotlight at the 2014 Australian Open and became a regular major title contender.
At this 2018 Australian Open, occasional glimpses of THAT version of Simona Halep emerged. She struggled to serve out Lauren Davis in the third round and almost paid very dearly for those multiple stumbles. She was not calm when she went up a set and a break against Angelique Kerber in the semifinals. She went through the rocky patches one would expect from a player who slightly (but not severely, as it turned out) injured her ankle in the second round of the tournament, and who was laboring under the burden of never having won a major title.
In the end, Halep still didn’t win that major title — a deserving Caroline Wozniacki snatched it from her on Saturday night. However, while Wozniacki’s career changed in the permanent way which belongs to players who cross the major-title threshold, it is fair to say that Halep’s career changed in a more subtle way… and for good reasons, not bad.
After Halep failed to serve out Lauren Davis; after she fell behind triple-match point to the American in the third round; after Simona lost her set-and-a-break lead to Kerber; after she fell behind the German 5-6 in the final set of that semifinal; after she lost a tough, close, high-level first set to Wozniacki in the final; and after she fell behind 3-1 to Woz in the final set, her body running on fumes, did we see the familiar nattering nabob of negativism we have become accustomed to?
Negative Simona wasn’t completely eliminated at this tournament, but she was substantially subdued, consistently (if not always) replaced by a more positive version who didn’t get sucked into head games or inner voices which led her astray.
This version of Simona Halep was more trusting of herself.
It’s true that Fighter Girl, as she once called herself, owned ample belief in the past. Her comeback win over Svitolina at the French Open was Defense Exhibit A. Yet, that belief — while not insignificant — could and did vary from one late-tournament match to another. When Halep, for instance, met Svitolina again in a Toronto semifinal, she could not have been in a darker or more stormy mood. It was yet another instance in which went to a very negative place when she needed to focus on the next point… but didn’t. Moments like those had to make tennis observers wonder if the Darren Cahill coaching relationship with Halep had run its course — not necessarily because of what Cahill was doing wrong, but because the player sometimes gets fed up with a coach, even if logic suggests that the partnership has been beneficial for the player. That often hasn’t stopped players from firing coaches they shouldn’t. The player often pays the price.
It was up to Halep in that moment in Toronto to stick with the plan and buy into Cahill’s advice. That resolve was once again tested by the subsequent Svitolina loss in Singapore.
Clearly, the 2018 Australian Open revealed a version of Halep which trusted herself and her coach to a greater degree — not, perhaps, by a large degree, but in tennis, merely a two-percent increase in concentration and belief can mean the difference between winning and losing. It is exactly why Halep beat Kerber in one of the best (third) sets 2018 will ever produce. It’s why Halep almost overcame a Mount Everest-sized level of adversity to win her first major.
Simona Halep did not break through in terms of lifting a major trophy in Australia. Yet, she did break through in terms of genuinely trusting her abilities. This claim is backed up by Halep’s reaction to her loss to Wozniacki. She said she gave 100 percent and knows that if she continues along this path, she will be in good position to win.
When an athlete can display clarity after a painful loss on a big stage, it’s a great sign for the future… especially when that clarity upholds a positive truth, not a negative one.
Did we say Simona Halep’s career is complicated? It remains complicated… but now it owns brighter, sunnier textures.
Fighter Girl is no longer fighting herself to the same degree. She should be able to pack more of a punch against future opponents at major tournaments.