Halep says hello

Simona Halep is, if we are being honest, not a title threat at the 2021 United States Open. That’s not a commentary on her quality or her competitive genius. It’s a realistic assessment of a player whose tennis season has been hijacked by injuries.

Halep wasn’t able to pursue the two major tournaments she has won, because her body got in the way. Not being able to compete at Roland Garros or Wimbledon is a gut-punch for any player. For Halep — a player who, when healthy, is a prime contender at big women’s tournaments — the injury bug could not have come at a worse time.

It’s bad enough for Roger Federer to be injured, and it’s obviously frustrating for him, but Federer is 40 years old, having run the race in his tennis career. He was not going to be a serious title contender in New York even if he had chosen to play. Halep missing out on Roland Garros — clay is her best surface — represented the true loss of a title chance. Wimbledon was not likely to be a place where she was in position to win this year, but only because of previous injuries which clouded her outlook before she made the decision to not compete at the All-England Club.

Halep wasn’t able to defend her 2019 Wimbledon championship, since Wimbledon was not staged in 2020 due to the pandemic. Not yet 30 years old, Halep still has prime years to give to tennis, so this injury-strewn 2021 cuts deeply in ways which don’t apply to Federer or Serena Williams, who have stuffed their trophy cases and are playing for the joy of competition more than the strengthening of their legacies.

Halep is not in the same position as those two superstars. She has a job to do, a job which includes getting a third major title before she hangs up her racquet. Several active women’s players are sitting on two majors. Getting a third major would significantly increase Halep’s overall standing — in the present moment and in a larger historical context — among WTA professionals. That’s another reason why the 2021 injury parade hurt her mentally as much as physically.

No, Halep is not a real contender at this U.S. Open, but while winning a major title isn’t realistic this summer in New York, there is certainly a mission Halep brought to the Big Apple:

Set the table for 2022 at the biggest tournaments in tennis.

Halep needed to make a statement — more to herself than to the rest of the tour — that she could still play big-league ball and beat a quality, in-form opponent.

Monday, in one of the first matches of the Open, Halep checked that box, beating Camila Giorgi, 6-4, 7-6 (3).

The particular details of the match should fuel Halep’s confidence. She served for the match twice and was broken twice. She was down a mini-break early in the second-set tiebreaker. She remained focused and won the last five points of the breaker, hitting two huge serves at 2-3 and 3-3 to turn the tide. Winning big points is ultimate nourishment for a seasoned player trying to regain a competitive edge. That’s one thing Halep can take into her next match in New York.

On a larger level, Halep — the No. 12 seed, a rarity for a player who has been a top-10 seed for a very long time at majors — can simply say that she ran into a hot player and cooled her off. Giorgi finally put together a complete game and won the Montreal championship earlier this summer. Calibrating her flamethrower groundstrokes better than ever, Giorgi reminded all of us that hitting a tennis ball hard has never been a problem for her. Giorgi’s potential is immense, and for one week, she realized it.

Consistency, though, has been Giorgi’s enemy throughout her career. It has been Halep’s close companion. Playing a steady, poised, veteran match — not always succeeding but always answering the call after tasting adversity — should enable Halep to tell herself, “Yep, I still know how to compete. Injuries didn’t make me forget how to cope with stress and pressure. I can build on this match for the remainder of the season and come back strong in 2022.”

Simona Halep isn’t thinking about winning the 2021 U.S. Open. She is surely thinking about restoring her game and ranking to the level she knows she can attain. Monday’s match against Camila Giorgi was central to that restoration project.

Brick by brick, Simona Halep is building back her career. Hopefully injuries won’t continue to get in her way.

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