When Simona Halep came back from 1-4 and break point down in the third set to defeat Elina Svitolina in the Qatar Open semifinals on Friday, one thing you didn’t see was Darren Cahill coming to Halep to refocus her mind. This is because Cahill is no longer Halep’s coach.
At least, not officially.
Wait a minute — not officially? You mean this is still an unofficial coaching relationship?
Moreover, as Camelia Butuliga of Treizecizero (30-0) wrote in this long-form essay last November after Cahill announced his intention to spend more time with his family, Cahill has imparted lessons not just to Halep herself, but to Romanian tennis observers who are still absorbing the full measure of his impact on Halep’s career and its evolution.
That evolution could clearly be seen in the third set against Svitolina on Friday. That same evolution emerged when Halep shrugged off a lopsided first set to push Serena Williams deep into the third set at the Australian Open.
Halep has not been a flawless competitor throughout her career, and no one should have the impression that Halep’s #INNERGAME has always been rock-solid, but it is clear that Halep gives away fewer sets and matches these days. Being present in the moment and flushing out negative patches of emotions are two internal skills Halep improved under Cahill. Now that the wise Australian coach is no longer involved in Halep’s weekly life on tour, everyone wondered if the lessons would stick.
After Friday’s comeback against Svitolina, it is profoundly clear that they have.
This raises a point: If a coach’s lessons can be absorbed in a player’s bones and marrow, why do we need on-court coaching? If a coach is good at what he does — Cahill certainly is — and a player is willing to be coached — as Halep was in her relationship with Cahill — isn’t that the epitome of how coaching ought to work in tennis? The work and the transformations occur over a longer period of time, in the process of building the relationship. Then, when the cauldron of match pressure arrives, the fully-formed player can call forth necessary reminders to navigate the storms and arrive at safe harbor.
Officially, Halep is no longer coachless after hiring Thierry Van Cleemput, but her coachless period wasn’t ever all that coachless in a larger sense. Accordingly, this part of Halep’s season wasn’t the disaster some feared it might become.
What is fascinating to see right now is that Halep’s decision to live without a coach for a brief period of time did not leave her in an especially vulnerable state.
She has shown what all good students do when instructed by excellent teachers: They retain the lesson instead of forgetting about it as soon as they graduate.