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RG18

THE SOUND OF MUSIC IS SWEET FOR SIMONA

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

Climb every mountain.

Ford every stream.

Follow every rainbow.

‘Til you find your dream.

“The Sound of Music” produced those lyrics above. Call them sappy and sentimental. Call them “straight outta Hollywood.” Call them over the top if you want.

That was Simona Halep’s Roland Garros championship, won on Saturday against Sloane Stephens on Court Philippe Chatrier in Paris.

Were tactics irrelevant in this match? No. As my colleague at Tennis With An Accent, Briana Foust, will write about in her piece on Stephens’ loss, there were certain tactical shifts and adjustments — some made by Halep, some not made by Stephens — which had an effect on this match and how it changed. Halep did tweak her game in important situations to find a path toward the winner’s circle and the victory podium on an emotion-drenched day in France.

Yet, while tactics had a place in this match and a role in shaping the outcome, they were secondary to a much deeper and more elemental aspect of this contest: Would Simona Halep — mind, body and soul — make Stephens feel her presence on the other side of the net?

Let’s provide some context to flesh out the importance and centrality of that question.

Stephens cruised through her first major final against Madison Keys last September at the U.S. Open, and she similarly moved through Keys without too much resistance in Thursday’s semifinal. Halep needed to convey to Stephens that points would not be won as easily.

Second, although Halep led Stephens 5-2 in the head to head going into Saturday, the two relatively recent meetings (in 2017) occurred when Stephens was still working her way back from a long injury layoff. Their meeting in Washington, D.C., in searing heat and humidity, revealed that Stephens had not yet built up her base of fitness and was still in the process of regaining a normal playing rhythm. Stephens faded in the second set after a razor-close first set. The two met a few weeks later in Cincinnati, in a rain-interrupted tournament which forced several players to play multiple matches on the same day. Within a context of jumbled, adjusted schedules, it is not only difficult, but unwise, to assign too much meaning to a match. Grigor Dimitrov won the men’s tournament in Cincinnati, and we can all see how much that win has meant in the following months.

Head-to-head tallies sometimes mean something, but not in this case. This time, Stephens had a fully established fitness base. This time, a tournament possessed a relatively normal flow, and if anything, Halep was the player who was dealt a worse hand by schedulers, something I addressed after Simona’s semifinal win over Garbine Muguruza. Stephens had a number of factors pointing in her direction. It was up to Halep to make the match difficult for the American.

This is one of my favorite aspects of sports: In the push and pull of competition, one side often gains an advantage because it announces to the opponent that it will be difficult to succeed. When this happens, the opponent who gets outplayed — and feels nervous as a result of being outplayed — faces a natural question and must ask it internally:

“Is there something I am fundamentally neglecting or forgetting to do, or do I just have to work harder?”

Of course, the question is an oversimplification, since the answer is often BOTH-AND, not either-or. However, the question elicits the tension competitors face when they are pushed back by quality opposition. Do they need to overhaul everything about their game, or just make minor course corrections and retain trust in the basic building blocks of their approach to the sport?

The temptation for an outplayed opponent — as Halep was in set one against Stephens on Saturday — is to think that an overhaul is necessary when in reality, the solution is not a magical one. As well as Stephens moves on clay (because Stephens is a brilliant, fluid mover on any surface), Halep is a better mover on clay. A child of Romania hadn’t earned a third trip to a Roland Garros final for nothing, whereas Stephens’s ascension on red dirt required more time to unfold. After a first set in which Stephens made virtually no mistakes, Halep — not owning a big serve or an imposing, reliable net game (you can’t win with weapons you don’t have) — had to place this match in the trust and care of her movement on clay and her willingness to slide around the world’s largest (surface-area) court longer than Stephens could.

This wasn’t “hoping and praying for an error.” No, it was more a matter of “remaining steady from the baseline, playing resolute defense, and continuing to ask questions.”

Stephens proclaimed — boldly and loudly — in the first set that Halep would have a devil of a time hitting through the American. Halep could have panicked and sought a radical restructuring of her game, but instead, she stood her ground and did something deceptively simple, the very thing great competitors do when the run of play is cutting against them: Halep flipped the question to the other side of the court. She dared STEPHENS to hit through HER. She told STEPHENS that closing out the match was going to be terrifically daunting.

In the 2018 Australian Open earlier this year, Halep ran a brave and complete race. She fought off three match points against Lauren Davis in the third round and won a 15-13 third set to survive. She won an epic semifinal against Angelique Kerber, 9-7 in the third. She gave Caroline Wozniacki everything she had in the final, but Wozniacki’s much shorter semifinal against Elise Mertens gave the dynamic Dane a fuller tank and a stronger finishing kick, which she used to take the final three games of the match and the title, 6-4 in the third.

This year, Halep’s ability to limit the length of her semifinal against Muguruza — avoiding a third set — gave her more than ample reason to trust her fitness against Stephens. In set one, Sloane made everything difficult for Simona. The Romanian needed to flip that question as the match wore on… and that’s exactly what she did. Halep revealed how fully she had evolved and matured as a competitor. She displayed the internal steel which was lacking last year in her loss to Jelena Ostapenko in a wrenching French final.

Speaking of that Ostapenko match — and adding to the symmetry and poetry of Halep’s redemptive moment in 2018 — the World No. 1 played her very best point at the precise occasion when it was easy to recall her fall from a lofty height a year ago.

In the 2017 French Open final, if you recall, Halep — up a set — was leading 3-0 and had a break point on Ostapenko’s serve. If Halep won that point, she almost certainly would have won the match. However, that point slipped through her fingers. Ostapenko — who can light the world on fire when she gets into a groove — began finding the sweet timing on her groundstrokes which had eluded her in set one. Before Halep knew it, she was flustered, overpowered and exposed. Though she led by a set and a break at 3-1 in the second set, she was not the player who asked questions. Ostapenko had taken over that position, flipping the weight of questions as outlined above.

This year, Halep — once again up 3-0 and break point, so close to a first major title — would not let an opponent change the conversation again. This time, Halep would put a match on lockdown, a sign of the transformation which marks a champion in every sense of the word.

Halep played her best scrambling defense to reset that 3-0 break point multiple times. Stephens — who started the match as the player who absorbed all the pace and power coming her way, and established leverage as a result — found herself on the opposite side of the divide. Now it was Halep who shrank the court and made the large expanse of Chatrier seem smaller for Stephens. Halep won the prolonged exchange and crossed the threshold she failed to reach a year ago. After that point for 4-0, it was only a matter of time before Halep crossed the ultimate threshold, the one she had been waiting to cross her entire career.

This Roland Garros tournament was difficult for Halep in many ways which are well known. The late start on Wednesday of the first week, the tough draw on paper — with major champions in each of the last three rounds of the tournament — and the very short turnaround for the Muguruza semifinal were some of the hurdles Halep had to clear. Yet, as big as those obstacles were, Halep had to remind herself that while Roland Garros proclaimed, “I am going to be difficult for you to conquer, Dear Simona,” she always had the ability to turn to this tournament and say right back, “That might be true, Rolly G, but I am going to be very hard for you to ignore. I don’t plan on being eliminated here.”

Halep constantly flipped the script at this tournament, just as she changed perceptions of her toughness in Australia, just as she avenged painful losses to Maria Sharapova and Ostapenko in the autumn swing of the 2017 season.

This wasn’t an abrupt turn. This was a process which had been set in motion for several months. Some weren’t willing to acknowledge these evolutionary steps in Simona Halep’s mental responses to adversity, but anyone who had been paying attention knew that Halep had already grown a lot before winning her first major title.

What happened on Saturday in sets two and three — neatly inverting the set-and-a-break-up loss to Ostapenko with a comeback from a set and a break down against Stephens — merely confirms all the growth Simona Halep has manifested in her career.

#FighterGirl has been living up to her self-bestowed moniker for some time. Saturday was not a plot twist so much as the last in a series of upward steps.

There are no more mountains to climb — not in the truest sense. Simona Halep gets to sleep the sleep of a major champion, just as Wozniacki did a few months ago in Australia.

Her dreams will be joyful, and the Sound of Music in those dreams will be sweeter than ever before.

Image source – Jimmie 48
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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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