Who can forget the indelible match that Simona Halep and Angelique Kerber played in the semifinals of the Australian Open this year? It was arguably the best women’s match of 2018, a tennis extravaganza lasting 2 hours and 20 minutes and ending in Halep’s victory by a score of 6-3, 4-6, 9-7 after she saved two match points at 5-6 in the third.
Wednesday, the two engaged in another three-setter, but that was about the only characteristic of this afternoon’s match on a Suzanne Lenglen court that was similar to the one in Malbourne in January. To be honest, that is open to debate too.
If a term existed in tennis to describe a “routine” three-set win, this match would serve as the emblematic example for it.
Why? Here’s the answer: If you take out the early 4-0 lead that Kerber built thanks to a sluggish start by Halep, the world number one was the better player for about 90 percent of the time during the rest of her 6-7 6-3 6-2 win – the other 10 percent consisting more or less of the first-set tiebreaker.
Simona made nine unforced errors in those first four games and chipped in two double faults for good (bad) measure. My usual reminder: I do my own count of unforced errors and do not include double faults in that count.
Kerber did not have to do much during those 18 minutes other than remaining consistent and using her strengths such as counterpunching the ball back to the direction from which it came while on the full run (see the 15-15 point at 4-2 in the first set for a great illustration of that, Angie pounding the ball right back to the spot it came from three times in a row, forcing Simona into an error). Angie hit only four winners during those four games, and frankly, she did not even need them. Simona did the lifting for her.
Then, Halep began to cut down on errors. Normally, that should not automatically translate into a comeback, because the player on the other side of the net should have something to say about it. Yet, it did in this case, because Kerber did not have a great day herself in terms of keeping the error count low. By the time the tiebreaker came around, Halep had 19 unforced errors, but Kerber almost caught up with her at 17.
Then, the 10 percent that I mentioned above happened. Right when you thought Halep should keep on carrying the momentum and win the tiebreaker to complete the first-set comeback, she went on another error-prone sequence in the tiebreaker. She recorded five more unforced errors, three of which came in the last three points. She lost the last five points of the tiebreaker to go down a set. Kerber did not hit a winner in the tiebreaker, she just kept the ball in play, only looking to place her shots deep.
To be fair, every player is allowed to have a bad sequence, even in a tiebreaker. It happens to the best players in the world, such as Halep in this match. For her, the problem with the first set was not the bad sequence in the tiebreaker, because that was immediately following a 32–minute-long period during which Halep played superior tennis to her opponent.
The actual problem was that she did all that just to climb out of a four-game hole she dug for herself in the beginning of the match. You see, when you work so hard for an extended period of time and appear to succeed, and yet your reward turns out to be nothing more than leveling the scoreboard, it is not unusual to suffer a momentary letdown at some point.
It’s too bad for Halep that the letdown occurred in the tiebreaker. Let me reiterate nevertheless: The reason why she lost the set was less the six-minute-long tiebreaker than the first 18 minutes of the set. Simona knew it too, it seemed:
“Yeah, it was a tough start. I think I missed too much,” she said after the match. “Actually, I want to forget those games (smiling) because was not exactly what I wanted to play at the beginning, but just didn’t feel it.”
You may have noticed a trend in the first set. The player that erred less had the upper hand. It’s a simple cliché in tennis. There are plenty of coaches and tennis pros who will even use dull sentences like “you are only as good as your next error,” or “matches are won on errors, not winners,” etc. They sound like platitudes, but they are hardly ever wrong. This match between Halep and Kerber rode on those clichés.
It did not have a secret story, no details to catch. Just your standard keep-the-ball-in-play-and-win formula.
Hence, as far as Halep was concerned, she could just stick to what she had done after going down 0-4 and expect that positive trend to continue unless Kerber modified her game plan. When asked what she changed after the first four games, Simona chuckled and replied, “The wrong tactic [is] that I missed everything (smiling). And the right tactic was that I didn’t miss any more (smiling).”
She was also aware of the simplistic nature of the match:
“Well, after I lost the first set, I just had in my mind that if I came back from 0-4, feels like the rhythm is there. So, I know what I have to play, to continue playing for the next set. And when I broke her first game, I felt more confident and I felt I have the game in my hands. So, I just have to be calm and keep trying.”
Indeed, the match continued in the same vein. Kerber’s error-prone game never went away. She committed 18 more unforced errors in the second set (to 8 for Halep) and 12 in the final set (to 6 for Halep). She also appeared to get tired in the third set. She began to go for warp-speed winners more than she did in the first two sets and attempted a few ill-advised drop shots.
Simona noticed: “I felt her a little bit tired in the end, but I knew that I have to stay there and still pushing, being aggressive.”
Kerber did not necessarily deny that, when asked how she felt physically as the match wore on:
“No, it was a tough match, especially also physically. I mean, for me, like I said also few days ago, I’m not the best on moving on clay. So, yeah, this takes me a lot of energy when I’m moving on clay with the sliding.”
The final score was 6-7, 6-3, 6-2, and it was truly not as close as the score indicated. The match was rather marked by errors, with no turning points in the match being defined by spectacular play. Contested points ending with winners were few and far between. Simona did not even have to play her best tennis to win this match – she did not. She pointed to her head when she won the match point. She did that “because it was really about the mental,” she affirmed.
“And after losing that set, when I came back it was a little bit tough, but I stayed there. I stayed focused. I never gave up. So I think that’s why I won today. My head won it.”
In my analysis of Halep’s win over Mertens in the previous round, I mentioned how important it was for Simona to get to the late rounds even if she does not produce her best tennis. I emphasized that the essential goal for her with regard to first weeks of majors, at this stage in her career, was to advance through rounds any way that she can, rather than being concerned with performing at her best.
Well, here we are in the second week of Roland Garros. Halep played some sublime tennis in beating Elise Mertens in the round of 16, but she was not fiercely challenged. Wednesday, she was challenged. Her resolve – not the quality of her tennis – got her through.
Thursday, she will need to bundle it all together and manufacture the full product in order to get past Garbine Muguruza.