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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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