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HALEP-STEPHENS: A CONTEST OF COMBINATIONS

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

Whenever spectators are fanning themselves, you know the weather is hot. Spectators in Montreal were indeed fanning themselves throughout Sunday’s Premier 5 final between Simona Halep and Sloane Stephens. As is often the case in big-time professional tennis, a significant tournament was played in a locality during that locality’s hottest time of year. Touring professionals have come to expect that when they pack their bags and hop on a plane to the next city on tour, they will often step into a flaming den of hot sun, maybe also searing humidity. The effort involved in playing attritional tennis at the highest level means that after 20 minutes of very hard work — chasing down that forehand, scrambling to hit the next backhand, straining to hit a huge serve down break point — their attire will be soaked.

Sweating in copious quantities is healthy — it is how the body cools itself down, part of how our biological mechanisms are wondrously structured. Yet, a sweat-soaked piece of athletic apparel also means that an athlete is playing with added weight. I never made the tennis team in high school — I was on the student newspaper, as you might well expect; I wasn’t a jock — but I don’t have to have played competitive tennis to tell you that a sweat-soaked shirt weighs a lot more than a dry shirt that has been freshly clean. I know that from having mowed my mother’s lawn a few times this summer in 105-degree Phoenix heat.

Beyond the added weight of a sweat-soaked top, WTA superstars such as Halep and Stephens have to play with ample taping on their feet, given the punishment they put themselves through. Halep needed a retaping during Sunday’s final, having picked up blisters earlier in the tournament, one in which she had to play two matches in one day and then make a very short turnaround between a Friday night quarterfinal and an early-afternoon semifinal on Saturday.

Why go through these details, you might reasonably ask? So much of the experience of playing tennis involves immense physical output and strain. The athlete puts her body through the wringer simply through the actual process of playing, and also through playing at the hottest time of year. Those details and actions described above are normal parts of playing tennis… and they don’t even touch on the reality of facing a particular — and particularly skilled — opponent.

Does this begin to fully encompass the holistic challenge Halep and Stephens faced on Sunday in Quebec? You be the judge.

If it DOES, simply know that there’s more to the story. If it DOESN’T, what follows might begin to satisfy your sense of the scene in Montreal.

Bud Collins, the late, great tennis historian and commentator who chronicled the Open Era of professional tennis for American audiences since its very start in 1968, famously called tennis “boxing without the blood.” The savage, attritional elements of tennis described above are relevant in that they unpack the taxing and sometimes torturous nature of playing professional tennis. They feed into the boxing analogy, but they don’t entirely COMPLETE it.

When two high-level players stand in the tennis rectangle — aka, the boxing ring — the analogy is brought to full life.

What was always easy for me to appreciate about the “boxing without the blood” analogy: Every shot hit by players was a punch. POW! Take that! And THAT! And THAT! Of course every smack of the ball would be compared to a jab or a roundhouse or an uppercut, the various kinds of punches boxers throw at each other. Of course tennis uses the term “counterpuncher,” which is what Halep and Stephens both do very well — it doesn’t completely define them as tennis players, but they are both very skilled at the practice. If you watched both the French Open final and Sunday’s clash in Montreal, you surely noticed that the player who hit the first ambitious shot in a rally and tried to dictate the point did not enjoy overwhelming success.

Yes, it is quite true that Halep found some cheap points on serve late in the third set, including an ace at *3-2 and later a serve-and-forehand 1-2 combo at *5-4, 15-15 which helped her get to the finish line, but those were exceptional moments and not routine occurrences. In many points during the match, one player tried to open up the court, but the opponent got to the ball and redirected it such that the initial striker had to switch from offense to defense and hit an uncomfortable shot on the run, which she often missed. The player who displayed initiative by trying to throw the first punch often lost that point three to five shots later. “Being aggressive” sounds great, but Halep and Stephens both know they have to pick their spots in order to be effective against each other.

This last point unearths a new level of detail in the “boxing without the blood” analogy which is so apt in professional tennis.

As noted above, I could always identify with the idea that every shot is a punch. That’s easy. That’s Tennis 101, an entry-level freshman-year course. The new layer of insight into the boxing analogy provided by the Montreal final is that much as boxers are always trying to find the right combinations of punches, tennis players try to do the same. The particular use of “combinations” is part of a Tennis 201 course, or maybe even 301.

Think about it: Boxers, when they stare at each other and dance around a boxing ring, have a scouting report just as tennis players do.

“This fighter is good at blocking eye-level punches, especially from his left side, which is the opponent’s right hand.”

“That fighter is good at blocking body punches from his right side, the opponent’s left hand.”

Between rounds — much as Darren Cahill (Halep) or Kamau Murray (Stephens) instructed their charges during this Montreal match — a boxing trainer will tell his fighter to get the opponent on the ropes, or keep the opponent moving instead of allowing him to stand. Some fighters are better lateral movers, while others prefer to stand in the middle of the ring and let the opponent come to them. Trainers will therefore tell their boxers to do what the opponent is not inclined to like.

Can we see how the tennis-boxing comparisons take on much deeper texture when seen in this light?

Halep would rather hit a backhand than a forehand if she had to choose between those shots. Stephens would rather move a lot during a point than stand still. These are only two tendencies out of several which Halep and Stephens display, but they might reasonably be viewed as the two central tendencies which shaped how the rest of Sunday’s match — and the French Open final — was played. Halep tried to hit in the middle third of the court to keep Stephens from moving, but when Stephens was able to get on the run, especially to the deuce corner, she would regularly hit crosscourt, not down the line, in order to force Halep to her forehand side. Stephens almost won the first set due to a bunch of Halep forehand errors, but Sloane flinched late in the set, which forced her to battle uphill for most of the next hour. Stephens played spectacular tennis to take the second set, and she had game point for 3-2 in the third, but just when it seemed she was making a decisive run, errors flooded her game, and Halep served better in the subsequent 20 to 25 minutes to finish off the win.

2018 Roland Garros - 5 Jun

Image – Jimmie 48

The match was a study in combinations. Both players knew what the bread-and-butter combinations were on each side, so they usually trusted those combinations in moments of importance. Yet, over the course of over two and a half hours in very difficult weather conditions, not every combination can be the same. Yes, a boxer might use a scouting report to throw the combinations of punches the opponent is weaker at defending, but over the course of 15 rounds, he has to mix up those combinations to set up a winning sequence which can land a telling blow. So it also is in tennis, and so it also was in Halep-Stephens.

Halep threw in a few drop shots late in the second set, an abrupt change of tactics. Stephens ran down those drop shots and produced some of the best points of the match, but Halep made Stephens work to win the second set. Halep also made Stephens realize that while running laterally is her most natural way of playing a point, she might have to run vertically within the court (forward and backward). That was all part of the test to see if an athlete is vulnerable to certain kinds of movements or patterns.

Another variation came midway through the third set: Most of the time when serving from the ad court in an important moment, Halep goes for a T serve, but at *3-2 and 30-15, trying to protect the break lead she had just gained when Stephens briefly lost focus at 2-2, Halep went for the wide serve to the corner of the box. She aced Stephens and held for 4-2, consolidating her advantage but also gaining the inner boost of knowing she could win points easily in the midst of this prolonged heavyweight bout. Hitting that ace was like hitting Stephens in the face with a jab — not a massive punch, but one which scored points on all judges’ cards and tilted the psychological balance late in a close contest.

Halep had thrown a punch to the right spot, properly anticipating that Stephens expected it to come from a different angle.

Boxing — I mean tennis — in its eternal search for combinations, staged against the backdrop of extreme bodily attrition, was never more real than it was in Montreal on Sunday.

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