Simona Halep — world number one and two-time Roland Garros finalist — had to be annoyed. It was Day 4 of the Parisian tournament and her bracket glaringly stood alone at the top of the women’s draw. Not because of any merits due to being the best player statistically of the last 52 weeks, but because her first-round match had been delayed after experiencing what may be considered by some as archaic rain delays. On a day when most WTA players were beginning to enter the third round, Halep was just trying to get out of the first.
Her opponent, Alison Riske, wouldn’t have minded the delay at all. Riske, who reached the final of the warm-up tournament in Nuremberg this past weekend, started the match strongly, displaying no signs of any fatigue. She was confident, forcing Halep to deal with penetrating forehands that bounced precisely near the lines. A first set graphic showed that 44 percent of Riske’s forehands were landing close to the sidelines compared to Halep’s 14 percent. Riske played so well that the world number one was able to hold serve only once in the first set.
Most started to wonder whether Halep’s lack of intensity had her on watch for an upset. Even though Halep is — as an extension of the rankings — the best player in the world right now, the disadvantages in her scouting report could read as “pessimistic mindset impacts game greatly” or “solely counterpunching is her Achilles heel.” Halep knew she had to pick up her game. One of her essential shots, her running forehand, had not yet arrived in Paris. Always self-aware, she slapped her thighs and berated herself for her not executing better. Could she turn her slow start around? Halep answered that question immediately by breaking Riske to open the second set and the contest was essentially over after that. She would lose only two more games to the American in the last two sets.
Halep admitted to her arm feeling tight in the first set in her courtside post-match interview. She stated that her comeback was mainly due to relaxing and realizing that she still had time to turn the match around. That’s no disrespect to Riske’s game. Alison Riske is a solid player, but her best results have come on hardcourts and grass. Riske has also never defeated at top-10 opponent on a surface other than hardcourts. Halep will need to try to maintain that zen as she progresses in the quest for her first major title. Tennis players are disciples to their routines, and Roland Garros has already thrown another wrench into Halep’s routine: Her next opponent, Taylor Townsend, received an extra day of rest and preparation by finishing her first-round match on Tuesday. As Halep showed on Wednesday, though, slow starts do not have to be a deterrent to a flying finish.