The Rorschach Test is a psychological test used, in many cases, to identify personality traits and gather information and context on the emotional profile of a patient. Simona Halep will not be studied as a patient in a psychologist’s office, but after her first-round loss at the U.S. Open to a bold and in-form Kaia Kanepi, Halep’s place in women’s tennis will be debated more fervently than ever before.
First things first: Kanepi put the pieces of the puzzle together against Halep, hitting huge but accurately, and using delicate drop shots to show that she was much more than a pure power merchant. Kanepi hit crisp volleys and closed off points so that Halep could not get any rhythm or comfort zone from the back of the court. Kanepi was brilliant in winning nine of the first 11 games in Monday’s match, and if she had not gotten tight midway through the second set, she could have won this match more easily. To her credit, when she unraveled, she was able to regroup at 4-4 and 40-15 on Halep’s serve, crushing a few second serves to get to deuce. Halep then made a few errors, and Kanepi sealed a break of serve with one of the best points of the match to get to 5-4. She routinely held to finish off her upset. She was the better player, and the match was always on her racquet. This was a deserved result.
Nevertheless, this marks Halep’s second straight first-round loss at the U.S. Open. It also marks the second straight major in 2018 in which Halep failed to get out of the first week. Halep has been the best player in women’s tennis this season, but for a very understandable set of reasons, this result in New York will raise questions about Halep’s identity heading into 2019 and beyond. Those questions might not be fair, in your opinion, but they will emerge, and they won’t go away anytime soon.
Halep, whether you feel it’s right or wrong, has become the Rorschach image various tennis fans will perceive in different ways. What do you see on the page? Anything you want to, because Halep can be whatever you want her to be.
Is Halep a player who has made the semifinals in all but three tournaments this season, but won only two titles at the Premier 5 level or higher?
Is Halep the most consistent player on tour in 2018, but also the player whose worst results of the season have come in two major tournaments plus Miami?
Is Halep someone who impressed the tour in Cincinnati with her resilience after Montreal, yet probably could have used mental refreshment two weeks ago instead of more tennis, in order to build for New York?
Is Halep someone who has answered tons of questions about her competitive chops this season and put to bed the biggest worries about her career by winning Roland Garros? Is Halep someone who still has a lot of questions to answer about her career, given that after that Roland Garros title, her major-tournament performances have been poor?
Is Halep a reflection of a stable World No. 1 player, given her bucket of semifinal-or-better appearances this season, or is she a reflection of WTA instability, given her Wimbledon and U.S. Open showings plus the lack of a larger collection of tour titles in 2018, which stands in contrasts to Petra Kvitova’s much larger haul?
The answer to all of those questions can be — and in some cases, as a matter of pure fact, is indeed — the same: Oui. Yes.
In so many ways that are good and inspiring, and in so many other ways which leave room for growth and improvement, Simona Halep is whatever you want her to be. She embodies strength and consistency, something not every tennis fan appreciates. Some tennis fans would rather have the year Kvitova has had, with more shifts in form but a lot more trophies to show for all the hard work. Other tennis fans would prefer a year with a lot of semifinals and finals, even if those results lead to fewer championships on tour.
This doesn’t make one tennis perspective inherently more correct or enlightened. It doesn’t make the competing perspective inherently more wrong or misguided. This and other similar tension points elicited by Halep’s loss on Monday — a display of inconsistency from a normally consistent player — reinforce the point that Simona is the epitome of a Rorschach test in women’s tennis.
The image she presents will be perceived in a million different ways by a million different people.
It is all in the eye of the beholder with Simona Halep.