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RG18

HALEP WALKS THROUGH THE FIRE, CAN SATISFY HER THIRST

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

She narrowly lost a contentious third set to Maria Sharapova four years ago.

She lost from a set and a break up against Jelena Ostapenko last year.

She lost a classic Australian Open final to Caroline Wozniacki this past January.

The fact that Simona Halep has not yet won a major final conveys a measure of pain, but the most profound source of agony for the WTA’s World No. 1 player is that her losses in major finals have been so close. Halep — twice in Paris, once in Melbourne — has been a handful of games away from attaining the foremost goal of any professional tennis player, only to be denied by superior opponents and — for at least 10 to 15 minutes in the second set of the Ostapenko match — her own inadequate performance.

Athletes want to come close to a major title, because one can’t win said title without coming close to it in the first place… but the reality of coming close without winning stings profoundly. Halep has had to absorb that jolt three times. It is easy to lose heart in the face of those “almost” moments, knowing one has to start from scratch at the next major tournament and make the climb through one, two, three, four, five, six, and then seven matches to claim a career-long goal.

How much harder it is to navigate that seven-match gauntlet when slow starts become a problem, tournament organizers throw all sorts of curveballs, and the opponents are formidable.

Simona Halep has overcome all of those obstacles through six matches this year at Stade Roland Garros. If she can win one more on Saturday, she will be able to win the first major title Wozniacki captured against her in Australia.

If claimed, this Roland Garros title — which will be satisfying enough on its own terms — will be even more special for Halep because of all the hardships she has had to endure at this tournament. Thursday’s semifinal against Garbine Muguruza was one of them, at least in a second set which was fraught with peril.

The alarming and considerable danger surrounding Halep midway through the second set against Muguruza — when she fell behind 4-2 and appeared headed for a third set — lay in the fact that she had to fight back over the course of a three-set win over Angelique Kerber the day before in the quarterfinals. At three of the four majors, two of the women’s semifinalists get no day off after their quarterfinal matches. Therefore, since Muguruza wiped the floor with Maria Sharapova in a lightning-quick match on Wednesday, the Spaniard stood to benefit if this tussle with Halep moved into a third stanza. Halep needed to win this match in straights, but when down 4-2, that goal was beginning to slip out of the Romanian’s reach. Halep cruised in a first set littered with Muguruza errors, but the second set was much more in line with Halep’s 2018 stay in France: It was anything but easy, partly due to outside factors beyond Halep’s control.

Before focusing on the end of the second set in Thursday’s semifinal, one must appreciate the events which led up to it, because they similarly tell the story of Halep’s rocky yet resolute journey through a series of landmines on red clay.

Halep’s first set at this tournament was one in which she fell out of bed and crashed to the floor, perhaps thrown off guard by starting on Wednesday, one day later than everyone else in the women’s field. Halep stumbled through a first set against Alison Riske in which she was cobwebby, confused and cluttered. She had to empty her mind and quickly reset the dial in the next 30 minutes; otherwise, her RG campaign would have crashed and burned in a bitterly disappointing way. She succeeded in restoring herself against Riske, but that three-set ordeal hardly meant her trials and tribulations were over. In fact, they were just beginning.

Halep was sluggish in a second-round win over Taylor Townsend, and unsteady in a roller-coaster first set against Andrea Petkovic on June 2 in the third round. That match was on Court 18, far from the show-court spotlight a World No. 1 player is accustomed to. French players were still in the singles tournaments on the first Saturday of Roland Garros; Halep — pushed out of the opening Tuesday schedule and forced to play on Wednesday — was inconvenienced a second time by tournament organizers.

Halep crushed Elise Mertens in the fourth round, but in the quarters against Angelique Kerber — her opponent in a memorable Australian Open semifinal — Halep started slowly again, as she did against Riske and to a lesser degree against Petkovic. Halep had to put on her hiking boots against a two-time major champion who, in her previous two rounds, dismissed a pair of big threats on Halep’s side of the draw: Kiki Bertens (third round) and Caroline Garcia (fourth round). Halep had to confront the reality that one year after falling behind a set and 5-1 to Elina Svitolina in a Roland Garros quarterfinal on Court Suzanne Lenglen, she would have to come back from a set down on Lenglen again, this time against a player who — unlike Svitolina — knew what it took to seal a major championship.

Halep — who once called herself “Fighter Girl” — lived up to her self-given moniker once again.

She powered through Kerber and was steady enough to let the German implode in most of the last two sets. A Roland Garros littered with obstacles and defined by adversity had not yet come to an end for the World No. 1.

The obstacles kept coming.

Because American television (NBC) wanted to show live tennis in New York after the financially profitable “Today Show” concluded, Roland Garros organizers were willing to put the Sloane Stephens-Madison Keys semifinal on court SECOND on Thursday, even though the two Americans had a day off between their quarterfinal and semifinal.

Guess who held the short end of the stick? Halep, again… which reinforces not only why she needed to take care of Muguruza in two sets, but also why she continues to be one of the more disrespected No. 1 players in recent memory. Show-court assignments take up a lot of oxygen and emotional energy on #TennisTwitter when the elite men’s tennis players are discussed; Halep’s treatment by Roland Garros organizers received a fraction of the attention. Playing difficult tennis matches has been one part of Simona’s rough road at Rolly G this year; treatment by tournament organizers and attitudes shown (or not shown) to her by American television represented a potent symbolic subtext to her journey.

Playing first after getting no day off? This was the inverse of being made to wait until Wednesday (May 30) to start her Roland Garros campaign. Halep had to play six matches over the course of nine days; to amplify that detail, her sixth match (Muguruza) was played only eight days after her first one in Paris. No other WTA player had to deal with that problem — the externals all cut against Halep at this tournament, without referring to any aspect of her on-court matches and opponents.

In the second set of Thursday’s semifinal, Muguruza began to hit harder and reduce her error count after a wayward first set. Halep very consciously felt the weight of the moment and fell behind in the process, but “Fighter Girl” hadn’t come this far to lose faith… or her legs and stamina. Muguruza was not at the height of her powers (a contrast to her blowout of Sharapova a day earlier), so if Halep could send enough balls back to her opponent, she still had a chance to prevail.

2018 Roland Garros - 7 Jun

Both Images taken from -Jimmie 48

With Muguruza serving at *4-3 and 15-15 in the second set, the match began to change precisely because Halep made her opponent hit an extra ball.

If you recall, the 9-8 point in the thrilling Marco Cecchinato-Novak Djokovic fourth-set tiebreaker from Tuesday was a point in which Djokovic crushed a return and appeared to have the point won. Cecchinato didn’t send back a full-force winner, but he did retrieve the ball and got it over the net. Djokovic should have made the subsequent shot — from a position at or near the service line in the middle third of the court — but the shot was tricky enough that it wasn’t an easy putaway. Crowd noise rose just before Djokovic hit the ball, and the Serbian superstar mistimed the shot for an error. Cecchinato stayed in the fourth set and won the match moments later.

At 4-3 and 15-all, Halep — as a returner — hit the same kind of shot Cecchinato did. Muguruza made the same mistake Djokovic made. What had been a set controlled by Muguruza began to shift. Halep seized on this opening to break for 4-4. Despite failing to find a thunderbolt with her own erratic serve, Halep did find a few lightning strikes with her forehand to save multiple break points. Muguruza showed flashes of brilliance, but never the rock-solid consistency which defines her at her best, otherwise known as “Muguruthless.” Halep wiggled out of that marathon game to hold for 5-4. It was the kind of game which normally separates winners from losers in high-stakes matches, and that was the case on Thursday.

As proof of the impact and influence carried by that 4-4 hold from Halep, Muguruza’s first point when serving to stay in the match at *4-5 provided the same error she had made on serve at 4-3, 15-15, the very kind of point which enabled Halep to see a pathway to avoiding a third set.

As had been the case at *4-3, Halep surged after Muguruza made a costly error with her forehand from a winning position. Halep drove the ball to the corners on the next two points while a nervous Muguruza didn’t move her feet to cover the court. Halep gained 0-40 on Muguruza’s serve and then closed out this sweet semifinal triumph. It might not have been the prolonged epic the Australian semifinal against Kerber was, but it showed just as much the Romanian’s fighting qualities, which — several years ago — deserved to be scrutinized, but which have now been convincingly transformed into a central bedrock of the World No. 1’s overall tennis profile.

Obstacles external and internal; slow starts to matches; major champions such as Kerber (quarterfinals) and Muguruza (semis); general indifference from American television and media — Simona Halep has had to bear crosses both trivial and substantial, ordinary and unusual. This doesn’t mean she deserves a major title, because the player who wins is the player who deserves the laurels.

What it does mean: She has damn sure deserved another chance at a Roland Garros championship and a first major title. It is hard to imagine a player overcoming as much to reach the final stage of the world’s most famous — and demanding — clay-court tournament.

Halep has walked over the coals. She needs to bring her muscle memory to Saturday afternoon’s clash against Sloane Stephens.

If she does, the adversity faced this fortnight will enable her and Romanians everywhere to cherish her work that much more.

 

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RG18

NADAL’S OWN NOVELTY

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

The biggest upset at the 2018 men’s Roland Garros tournament was not Marco Cecchinato over Novak Djokovic. It was something much bigger: Through the first six rounds of play, the men produced a better, more interesting, more compelling tournament than the women. That hadn’t happened in a few years. The 2017 Australian Open was great on both the men’s and women’s sides. The last time the men were unambiguously better than the women? If you have a clear answer, good for you, but it won’t come from the past three years. The men have occasionally matched the women and usually fallen short.

At Roland Garros in 2018, the men were better. (more…)

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RG18

WOMEN’S TENNIS: THIS KIND OF SOCIALISM WORKS

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

Socialism sounds good in theory but never ends up well in practice, they say.

“They” obviously aren’t watching women’s professional tennis these days.

Remember when Serena Williams continued and extended her control over the WTA Tour at the 2017 Australian Open, following a 2016 run in which she made three major finals and a fourth semifinal? That 2016 season was also a campaign in which Angelique Kerber reached three major finals and won two. Not a lot of sharing happened on the WTA Tour, and when Serena lifted her 23rd major crown in Melbourne, it seemed that women’s tennis would remain a monarchy run by Serena, not a democracy in which various players had an equal say in the year’s most important tournaments.

Then came Serena’s pregnancy, and in a heartbeat, the WTA became a vast expanse of questions and uncertainties.

We have seen on the ATP Tour how the injury-based absences of top players have created voids — not only in terms of consistent results at majors, but also the overall quality of play. This just-concluded French Open was one of the ATP’s better majors in a while, but over the past two years, men’s tennis at the Grand Slam tournaments has been largely dreary and uninspiring. Most finals have been numbingly predictable snoozefests, and without proven players to take charge in halves or quarters of draws, many random results — “someone will win because someone has to, not because someone is transcendent or special” — have proliferated. The 2017 Roland Garros tournament was like this. The 2017 Wimbledon tournament offered glimpses of such an identity. 2017 U.S. Open was the ultimate representation of this dynamic over the past 18 months. The 2018 Australian Open largely fit this description as well.

Missing the top stars the past 18 to 24 months has noticeably hurt the quality of the ATP Tour, so when Serena had to tend to the task of childbirth, everyone naturally wondered how women’s tennis would respond.

The results have been unpredictable, just as they have been with the men (hello, Sam Querrey making a Wimbledon semifinal; Kevin Anderson playing Pablo Carreno Busta in a U.S. Open semifinal; Hyeon Chung and Kyle Edmund making Australian Open semis; Marco Cecchinato making these just-concluded Roland Garros semis). However, women’s tennis has produced the compelling major finals men’s tennis has failed to deliver. Just compare the two Roland Garros finals we witnessed over the weekend.

More than that, women’s tennis is crowning the new champions men’s tennis is failing to produce.

Since the start of 2010, men’s tennis has created only three first-time major champions: Andy Murray at the 2012 U.S. Open, Stan Wawrinka at the 2014 Australian Open, and Marin Cilic at the 2014 U.S. Open.

Ever since Serena stepped away from the sport in early 2017, the WTA — in a span of five major tournaments — has exceeded the men’s total of first-time major winners this decade.

Jelena Ostapenko last year at Roland Garros; Sloane Stephens at the U.S. Open; Caroline Wozniacki in Australia; and Simona Halep this past Saturday in Paris have all crossed the threshold. If the men — #ATPLostBoys — can’t pass the baton to younger generations just yet, the WTA is doing exactly that, and in supremely entertaining fashion. What is even more noteworthy: The players at the center of the WTA’s balanced distribution of signature championships are removing significant what-if burdens from the sport.

2018 Roland Garros - 24 May

Both Images taken from – Jimmie 48

Ostapenko is the outlier in the group, but Stephens has answered questions about who will be the next American player to follow in Serena’s footsteps — not to the same extent, of course, but certainly in terms of being a constant threat to do well at the biggest events in the sport.

In 2018, Wozniacki and Halep have both removed the eight most oppressive words in tennis or golf from their necks: “Best player never to have won a major.” The unpredictability we all expected in women’s tennis once Serena stepped away has been the happiest, most productive unpredictability one could imagine. The combination of entertainment value and redemptive stories has been off the charts.

The flow of life on the WTA Tour has been so cathartic and inspiring that after Wozniacki and Halep removed burdensome labels from their careers, there’s no similarly acute example remaining of a player currently in contention at majors who is trying to banish her demons. Karolina Pliskova, at 26, is the oldest player without a major in the current WTA top 10. As she gets to age 28 or 29, her story might become more poignant, but as someone who has made only two major semifinals and only one major final, Pliskova doesn’t have the accumulation of memorably painful defeats both Wozniacki and Halep absorbed before those two finally broke through. Wozniacki’s and Halep’s respective triumphs this year carried so much impact because the tennis world was aware how often they had climbed the hill, only to be knocked down to the valleys below. Pliskova’s story doesn’t carry the same weight — not yet. The WTA has written the two foremost feel-good stories it possibly could have authored in 2018.

The one still-active player on the WTA Tour who can legitimately claim to be the “Best Player Never To Have Won A Major” is Agnieszka Radwanska, now 29 years old. However, she is outside the top 25 and hasn’t been a top threat at the majors for roughly two years. (She lost to Serena in the 2016 Australian Open semifinals.) Among active players in contention at the year’s biggest tournaments, no first-time major hopefuls carry the promise of hope or the weight of longing to the degree Wozniacki and Halep offered.

In an age when so many sports teams — internationally and in America — are winning their first huge championships in their respective realms of competition, the WTA is in step with the times. That the WTA’s evolution has coexisted with a high quality of play and gripping major finals shows that this version of socialism — wide and relatively even distribution of resources — works in practice, not just in theory.

We will see at Wimbledon if it continues.

 

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RG18

Testigos de la grandeza

Saqib Ali

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Briana Foust

Mientras veía a Rafael Nadal intentar completar el tercer set de la final masculina de Roland Garros a la vez que resistía un calambre en su mano izquierda, de repente, comprendí algo que me impactó: cada pequeño detalle debe darse para que un jugador encuentre el santo grial del tenis, también conocido como ganar un gran título de grand slam. No puede haber ningún accidente.

Ningún conductor ebrio, como el que frenó a Thomas Muster, ni un fanático desequilibrado, como el que interrumpió el curso de la vida de Mónica Seles. No puede haber ninguna lesión, como las muñecas vulnerables de Juan Martín Del Potro o ninguna distracción que pueda causar algún problema personal. Ni siquiera se puede sufrir un lapsus de concentración porque eso le abre la puerta a rivales hambrientos que siempre están trabajando para mejorar. (more…)

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