For the second straight year, Simona Halep has suffered an injury in China. No immediate significance should be attached to her loss to Ekaterina Alexandrova in Beijing. Yes, when a player takes the court, she or he is fit enough to play. Full credit should be given to Alexandrova for pouncing on an opportunity.
Is this a bad loss for Halep? Certainly not. We can all put two and two together and — thinking contextually — not downgrade Halep’s tennis or perceive her more negatively as an athlete and competitor.
Therefore, the following point is not closely tied to Halep’s performance in China. It is worth articulating in the wake of her Beijing exit, but it is being advanced more because of Halep’s larger situation, NOT because of the past week and a half in Asia.
That point is as follows: The first three WTA major champions of 2019 have not followed their major title with great tennis. Halep is merely the latest to fit into this pattern after her Wimbledon title.
Naomi Osaka didn’t follow up the Australian Open with quality performances.
Ashleigh Barty did have a good grass warm-up tournament before Wimbledon, but ever since her Manic Monday loss to Alison Riske, the 2019 season has been difficult and complicated for her. Barty’s results have not been terrible by any means, but the free-flowing game which was much more evident in the first half of the season has not surfaced very often.
Now we have Halep, who won Wimbledon, had a deserved victory tour in Romania to share with a grateful nation… and has found it hard to hit the reset button in an attempt to lift more big trophies.
Let’s be very clear here: I am not upset at or highly critical of any of these players.
Osaka went through a coaching change in search of inner peace and more joy in her life.
Barty is everyone’s target as the World No. 1 and is naturally receiving pushback from the tour. Learning how to handle that position doesn’t come instantly.
Halep was hurt last week in China, as noted above. She also knows Darren Cahill will rejoin her next year. This is not a situation in which it is easy for her to be at her very best. She lives in an in-between world right now.
These are all valid reasons for not playing top-tier tennis after winning a major. All three players have forged huge triumphs this year. They have achieved richly and should be recognized as elites in their sport.
Osaka and Halep have won multiple major titles. Barty has only one but is poised to become year-end World No. 1. A good week in Beijing would move her closer to that glittering goal.
This is not criticism of Osaka, Barty and Halep. Think of it merely as a gentle note that women’s tennis is still waiting for its major champions to win majors and keep playing elite tennis without much interruption.
Women’s tennis — for all of its many strengths and positive attributes — can use that in 2020. It can also use more high-end rivalries (part of why a Billie Jean King Cup, an equivalent to Laver Cup for the ATP, is such an obvious idea which needs to happen soon).
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