There was a terrific women’s tennis match that delighted tennis fans on Saturday, or put more eloquently: A free course was taught on problem solving on Court No. 1 at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in London, for two hours and 20 minutes on a sunny afternoon, by both Hsieh Su-Wei and Simona Halep.
When one player got the upper hand, the other struck back. When one went on a run, the other raised her level and matched it. When put forth a challenge, the other tackled it with great zeal. When one had the break, the other broke back. So went the match back and forth between two high-IQ players, until Hsieh stood as the conqueror at the end, only because there can neither be two winners, nor a tie in our sport.
This is the emblematic example of a match that cannot – should not – contain verbs such as “squander” or “blew” when explaining the leads that did not hold for either player. Nor should it include adjectives such as “choke,” “gag,” or “mess up,” when talking about crucial turning points. I can live with a couple of “should haves” or “wonder whys” – which you may find in this piece – but not the “why-0h-why” type of lamenting on behalf on either player.
If indeed I had to identify one stretch of the match during which one player did not perform at a high level, I would point to the first set, when Hsieh made 17 unforced errors**, 13 of them coming on her forehand.
**I do my own count of unforced errors and winners. I don’t include aces in the “winners” category, nor double faults in the “unforced errors” one.
The fact that Halep started with aggressive returns and groundstrokes exacerbated Hsieh’s struggles. She found herself scrambling a lot and unable to step inside the court where she could lean** into her baseline shots with the upper body to generate pace or put her drop shots to use.
**For one illustration (among many throughout the match) of the difference between Hsieh’s stroke production when she is on her front foot and gets to lean her shoulders into the shot versus when she is on her back foot, see the 30-15 point in the first game of the second set, where she ran Halep from corner to corner with her first two shots that she hit from inside the baseline and flattened out; when Halep counterpunched hard on her third shot and pushed her back, Hsieh sent it higher over the net off her back foot, allowing Halep to step in and strike the winner.
Halep also appeared to commit more unforced errors than usual – 10 total in the first set, equally divided between the two wings – but that seemed to be an acceptable part of her game plan. She was hitting the ball hard, nailing it at times. She would every now and then switch to a high topspin shot on her forehand, but it rarely lasted for more than one shot. She stuck with the elevated octane level on her groundies from the beginning to the end. It was quite remarkable to watch and spoke volumes as to how much her confidence grew since 2018 began in terms of her aggressive stroke production from the baseline.
Hsieh needed to take more risks and wrest the initiative away from Halep. She succeeded in doing so in the beginning of the second set when she won three games in a row, at 0-1, to grab a 3-1 lead. There were also a few points that showed some chinks in Halep’s armor. For example, at 1-1, with Halep serving, Hsieh got the break when Halep hit a routine forehand swing volley right back at her and the Taiwanese player drove her backhand to the open court. Then, at 1-2 down with Hsieh serving, Halep had a 0-15 lead but made a backhand unforced error and attempted a badly timed drop shot to go down 30-15. Hsieh’s renewed aggressive play combined with a few errors by Halep seemed to turn the match around when Hsieh led 3-1.
However, the World No. 1 raised her level again, playing possibly her best game at 2-3 to break Hsieh’s serve and hold to go up 4-3. Right when everyone thought that the top seed was on her way to ending the match in straight sets, Hsieh raised the stakes once again. In that eighth game, she hit three remarkable forehand winners (yes, the same side from which she sputtered 13 errors in the first set alone) to hold to 4-4. In that next game, Halep committed two unforced errors on her forehand, one to start the game and the other at 30-30, both sailing deep, which turned out to be costly. They were both high-clearance-over-the-net forehands (mentioned above) that she mixed in occasionally, as part of her overall game plan. Otherwise, Hsieh added two more extremely well-played games to the one she played at 3-4 down and extended the match to a final set.
Halep answered Hsieh’s charge once again and played a stretch of 32 minutes during which she nailed 12 winners and made only three unforced errors while playing with a high-degree of risk-taking from the baseline. Simona appeared poised to soon shut the door on her opponent.
Hsieh had other plans. As she did in the crucial 3-4 game in the second set to turn it around, she produced three forehand winners in the same game again, this time with Halep serving at 5-3 in the final set. She hit the first two to start the game with a 0-30 lead and added the third one on break point.
Let me put the exclamation on this detail: Hsieh hit 12 total forehand winners in sets two and three. Half of them came in those two games, the two that turned sets two and three around in their late stages. If that does not qualify as clutch, I don’t know what will.
I know that Hsieh also saved a match point at 4-5, 30-40, but that wasn’t the whole story. To latch onto one point and say that Hsieh played wonderfully there – a backhand down the line that saved match point – while ignoring what she accomplished in the two full games at 4-3 in the second and 5-3 in the third, would be an extremely reductive description of what she accomplished in terms of “turning the match around.”
After holding serve and equalizing at 5-5, Hsieh “officially” led on the scoreboard for the first time in the match when she broke Halep’s serve to go up 6-5. Nevertheless, she still needed to hold serve to end the match — that was no easy task considering Halep broke her serve seven times until that moment. Hsieh played spectacular defense in that game and forced Halep to push the envelope too far, committing a few “forced” errors to end the match with the score of 3-6, 6-4, 7-5.
Hsieh used offense with success to turn the match around (twice), and then used defense with success to win it. She overcame an opponent that was riding high on confidence and seeking to impose her improved brand of offensive tennis from the baseline on grass.
Problem solved! Mission accomplished! Bravo Hsieh Su-wei !
As for Simona Halep, someone had to be the loser and she turned out to be that player. Notice I employed “had to be the loser” and not “had to lose,” because the latter would imply that Halep did something that resulted in her loss. She did not. In fact, she did all the right things to put herself in a position to win the match – she even got to a match point. Hsieh did one better. If you are putting blame on Halep for losing this match, you are probably opining in a Simona-centric manner.
You should really praise her for putting on a quality performance so soon after a chaotic five-week sequence that marked her life. Let’s remember what happened in the last few weeks. She collected the crowning achievement of her career, her first major title, followed by almost two weeks of events in her home country where her victory was celebrated. She had to participate in various events, including the celebration in her honor at the national stadium in Romania, and fulfill TV and sponsorship obligations, which all meant that she did not practice during that time. Add to that days that she needed for herself, to unwind her mind and body, that left her with very little preparation time for Wimbledon. By her own admission in her first press conference at Wimbledon last Saturday (June 30), she came to London “eight days ago” (which means June 22). That is when she stepped back on the court to prepare. Let’s recognize what that represents and add it to the analysis. Simona played at a very high level considering the circumstances of the timeline leading up to Saturday and lost only because her opponent outplayed her in the last stretch.
Simona, who tends to judge herself harshly at times, was critical of her disposition, but not her effort or level of play: “Actually it was okay as a game. I just believe that I was not very positive on court. The match was very unprofessional for me. But I am too tired. I was too tired. I have pain everywhere. I will not find the excuses about this match, she deserved to win, but still I’m sad about myself today.”
When asked what she meant by “unprofessional,” Halep explained further:
“Definitely I gave everything I had on the game side. I was fighting till the end for every ball. I just was too negative to myself, talking too much. I think because I was tired, because I’m tired, I couldn’t stay focused for every ball. I was leading the match, I was up, and I couldn’t finish it. I’m not hard. I’m just realistic and honest with myself. I accept that it was an unprofessional attitude from me today.”
And Halep is indeed tired. She said after the match that her “muscles are gone,” and that she plans to rest one week, “maybe two weeks maximum.” She added that she plans to do “anything but tennis” during her break:
“Chilling, resting, doing nothing. Just enjoying life. I gave everything I had to tennis this period. Now I want just to spoil myself, to be a normal girl, and enjoying life.”
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