Following her win against Iga Swiatek on Monday in the round of 16, Simona Halep was asked about the prospect of facing another teenager, the unseeded American Amanda Anisimova.
She stated: “I feel old.” She followed it a up two sentences later with, “But I feel stronger on court.”
Well, Halep did lose — 6-2 6-4 — to Anisimova on Thursday on the Philippe-Chatrier court, but it had nothing to do with the age difference between the two (as much as some pundits may choose to work that angle for ratings). It had more to do with Anisimova’s stellar execution of her game plan and a lack of adjustment on Halep’s part, the former reason playing a much larger role than the latter, just to be crystal clear.
In my “Tournament in a Teabreak” chat with Ros Satar of Britwatchsports.com on Tuesday evening, I mentioned Simona’s down-the-line shotmaking prowess from the baseline and how that could prove troublesome for Anisimova, who prefers taking the balls on the rise. In order to execute such shots, players such as the American tend to cut off the angles of the opponent’s crosscourt groundies by stepping inside the baseline and striking the ball before it pushes them further outside the court. In doing so, they manage to rush the opponent and put the opponent on the defensive.
If you want to see a perfect example, among many in the match, of how potent such a strategy can prove to be, look no further than the second point of the encounter. After the second shot in that point, Anisimova parks on the baseline (or a foot behind at most), pounds one shot after another to the corners, and essentially reduces Halep to the role of the retriever whose sole concern becomes merely to get balls back in the court. A few shots later, Anisimova senses a floater coming from a stretched-out Halep, moves in, and hits a swing-volley winner in the air.
These are the types of points to which Halep was probably referring when she said after the match that Amanda “puts pressure on the game. And even if she doesn’t hit strong like with a lot of power, she hits it very long, very deep, with good depth, and it’s tough to return the balls.”
The opponent who faces this type of challenge, for her part, can benefit from changing the rally’s pattern with a down-the-line shot, thus forcing the more aggressive player, who may have positioned herself on or inside the baseline, to chase the ball sideways or even slightly backward. That often leads to a shift in the rally’s dynamics at that point, suddenly leaving the aggressor as the one having to scramble for the next shot.
With that in mind, I decided to keep a tab on such points. I wanted to see how many of those were played in the match, or rather, how many times Halep was going to employ this shift in rallies. I counted 11 of them. Five in the first set, six in the second. Not nearly enough, in my opinion. The rest of the time, Halep would attempt to go toe-to-toe with Anisimova on mainly crosscourt rallies.
Guess how many of those 11 points ended in Halep’s favor? Nine of them. In a match that she lost 6-2 6-4, Halep won 9 out 11 points where she shifted the pattern with a down-the-line shot. Which makes me wonder, why did she not use a working strategy more often against an opponent whose timing was otherwise near perfect, at least for a set and a half? For those interested, here are three examples of those nine points: (1) 0-1, 40-30 on Halep’s serve, (2) 4-2, first deuce on Anisimova’s serve, (3) the first set point that Halep saved at 2-5, 15-40. All three examples are from the first set.
Neither did Halep seek to change the pace of rallies with slices or semi-paced high topspin shots – the couple of times that she did, both in the second set, first at 0-1, 0-15, with a mid-pace high topspin, and the second at 4-5, 15-30, with a backhand off-pace deep slice, Anisimova made direct errors in response. These attempts came rarely from Halep throughout the match. (I can’t remember any such attempts in the first set, honestly, nor can I remember any drop-shot attempts by her, unless it was in response to a drop shot by Amanda.)
It’s true that I have written most of the above framed around Halep’s point of view. However, I assure you that even if the Romanian did execute the above-mentioned aspects to perfection, the way Anisimova was fearlessly striking the ball, even during the middle stretch of the second set when she turned error-prone, it may not have made a difference in the final outcome. In fact, I would argue that from 4-2, deuce, in the first set, to 3-0 in the second, Anisimova played the best tennis that I have seen anyone in the women’s draw put on display so far, with Johanna Konta being the exception on Tuesday.
Her forehand remained flawless from the beginning of the match to 3-1 in the second, when she made three unforced forehand errors in the same game, but still held serve. She eventually added four more of them in the next three games before she found herself leveled at 4-4 against last year’s champion. That brought her number of total unforced errors in the second set to 15, three more than double the amount in the first set – all unforced errors are my own count.
Everything about the match at that juncture gave the impression that Halep was in the beginning stages of a remarkable comeback that would send the teenager American home, but still staring at a bright future for consolation.
Anisimova, however, did not want any of that. Her future was now. She was mentally unshakable, and her arms did not tremble. She did admit later to nerves “kicking in a bit” in the second set, but obviously not enough, as she survived a break point in the 4-4 game and held serve. Then, she broke Halep’s serve and won the match on a typical “Anisimova point,” meaning that she stepped inside the baseline to take the ball early, aligned her upper body, and smacked the backhand for a clean down-the-line winner.
Anisimova committed zero double faults and finished the match with a 74% first-serve rate, which is an important part of the equation since her success rests partially on how effectively she can execute her second shots, whether after serves or returns.
In the near-perfect first set, she hit 11 winners and made six unforced errors compared to six winners and eight unforced errors for Simona. In the second set, while her winners kept coming, her unforced-error count skyrocketed, as noted above. But she still managed to win the critical points with either a nice second serve, or a strong return, or a winner to the corner, basically on shots that you would not expect from a 17-year-old on her first match on the Philippe-Chatrier court, in her first appearance in the second week of a major.
After admitting at first that what she accomplished Thursday will probably not yet “sink in,” when asked how she was able to “approach that match seemingly without being nervous,” Amanda said: “Yeah. I mean, I didn’t look nervous because I wasn’t. […] I was just going out to – I was very excited. And to have this opportunity, I mean, it’s just amazing. That’s why I was playing really well in the first set. But in the second set I was, like, Oh, I have to do it again (smiling).”
A different type of challenge awaits Anisimova in the semis when she takes on Ashleigh Barty, the Australian shotmaker who can supply a dozen different types of paces and spins on her shots. It will also be her first career show at the semifinal stage of a major. It is an opportunity of a lifetime for both. Clear your schedule for Friday!