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Australian Open

Simona Halep and the personal touch

Matt Zemek

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This story about Simona Halep begins with a few paragraphs on Michael Jordan.

If you are a basketball fan, chances are you have seen the 10-part documentary on Michael Jordan, “The Last Dance,” in which Jordan and his Chicago Bulls teammates reflect on the journey they made in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Bulls and Jordan won six NBA championships in the 1990s, but not before going through growing pains in the late 1980s and learning what they needed to learn in order to become great. The Bulls had to deal with losing and falling short before they could win.

Michael Jordan was a great basketball player before he won his first NBA championship. The difference is that he had more — and better — help from his supporting cast. Jordan also learned how to be the kind of teammate who could drive other players in a positive direction, helping them to focus their energies and skills more properly in service of team goals. Many different qualities and characteristics helped Jordan and the Bulls evolve into champions. Yet, while those other processes were important, it was Jordan who put the Bulls over the top.

He played through food poisoning in an NBA Finals game. He willed himself through exhaustion when Pippen was noticeably injured in a separate NBA Finals game. He had to possess extraordinary inner steel to do all the heavy lifting he did for nearly a full decade.

Few people in the history of sports have ever been better at Michael Jordan than taking a circumstance or occurrence and turning it into fuel for peak performance. Jordan noticed slights or setbacks in his career — words from opponents, difficult defeats, doubts about his or his team’s ability to succeed — and found a very clear and pure inner focus which sharpened his edge.

This is expressed in a now-celebrated meme:

To bring the focus back to Simona Halep, she took it very personally that she got drilled by Iga Swiatek at Roland Garros last autumn.

Let’s clear up something about the idea of “taking something personally.” No, it’s not a personal dislike of an opponent. This is not about revenge so much as remembering a moment of pain or professional dissatisfaction and choosing to do something about it… and being ABLE to successfully carry out the plan.

That’s what this is about.

Jordan didn’t so much hate other athletes as he hated the reality of either losing or being told he couldn’t do something. He might have carried some resentment toward opponents at times, but resentment doesn’t get people far in life. An insistence on doing better in response to a provocation or setback? That’s what moves people into action and productivity. Jordan was a master at that part of competition.

Simona Halep and other great tennis players display that specific capacity.

If you play long enough at the highest level, you are going to absorb some disappointments. Jordan did. Roger Federer and the rest of the Big 3 have. Serena Williams has. Even the very best go through the valley of frustration.

Failure is not found in the frustration itself, but in the inability to respond to it and learn from it the next time one has a chance to apply lessons.

Halep didn’t resent Swiatek, but Swiatek reminded Halep of a specific disappointment. That disappointment — not anything uniquely belonging to Swiatek — was on Halep’s mind, just as it was on the mind of every tennis fan who tuned into this match.

“How would Halep solve the Swiatek problem?” The question, in more words or less, embodied the central drama of this match.

After a first set in which Swiatek took control, the question loomed even larger.

How did Halep answer that first-set barrage from Swiatek?

This is how she replied:

Was Simona Halep going to continue to get kicked around by a gifted player who seems likely to add more majors to her trophy case in the next decade? It was possible… but Halep insisted on writing a different story. She took it personally.

She told Alex MacPherson of WTA Tennis:

“I thought before the match that I have to be a little bit more aggressive than Paris,” she said. “In Paris I [was] very far back, and my ball didn’t go through the court. So I thought that it’s a better chance to go and hit. But then I saw that I do some mistakes… I don’t like to do easy mistakes. And then I just step back a little bit. I did a step back, and I wanted just to open the court more to have more time and to roll the ball better. So I did that, and that’s why I could win.”

“I felt that she was playing better, and she was more focused than the beginning of the set,” Halep told reporters. “She didn’t give up a point, which makes the life tougher during the match – but I did the same thing, and I’m happy that I could be a little bit stronger in the end.”

Simona Halep took it personally. Now she has a date with Serena Williams in the quarterfinals.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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