I don’t know what Simona Halep thinks about this statement, but let’s put it into the universe: There is something powerfully symbolic about the fact that in tennis, there is a “change of ends” during tiebreakers, and in the alternating sequences of games within a match.
Of course, various sports involve changing sides of a field or court, but the term “change of ends” is recognized as a part of the tennis lexicon in a way which doesn’t equally apply to most other sports.
Why is this? I won’t claim to know. Purely as a guess, and not as a firm declaration of reality, tennis is a sport played predominantly in the daytime, and outdoors unless in the colder times of the year. The advantage of switching sides on a hockey rink or a basketball court is minimal. Sure, one might have a problem shooting a basketball if fans of the opposing team are behind the basket, creating distractions, but that’s not something a professional should ever have to worry about. (In college basketball, with teenagers, it might be a little different.)
Tennis and American football are the two high-profile sports in which playing at a particular end of the playing area — be it a court or a field — can be relevant to what happens in competition. In American football, playing at one end of the field and moving in one direction on the field can be aided or hindered by the wind. If the wind is against a team’s direction, that hurts whenever the team has to kick the ball. The wind can sharply reduce the amount of yards a ball will travel, which can be hugely important in changing the competitive balance and leverage within a game.
In tennis, wind can be part of the mix, but an even bigger complicating factor is the sun. Players often struggle when having to look squarely into a bright sun on serve. Their ball toss can get lost as it goes straight into an early-afternoon chamber of light. Plenty of times, we have seen players struggle to hold serve at one end of the court. In one set, players at the sunny end of a court might win only two or three games out of 10 or 12. In tennis, playing at a given end of the court CAN matter — not usually, but sometimes.
That point aside, let’s get back to the symbolism involved in changing ends.
If you have been to an art gallery, or if you have merely seen a large display of public art in your city of residence, you have tasted the experience of seeing an object of art from different vantage points. If an object of art is in the middle of a room or the middle of a city sidewalk, you have the ability to walk around that object and make a full circle. You can see the object in sun, in shadow, from north or south or east or west, and what you see from each of those vantage points can change or magnify how you value or appreciate the work of art.
So it is in tennis.
Two players, changing ends over the course of a multi-hour match and the shifting angles of the sun in Madrid, are constantly reconsidering how to approach each other, the scoreboard, and the demands of the moment. They know what they do well; they know what their opponent does well; they try to initiate but know they will sometimes have to react rather than deliver the first strike. Within this theater of competition, it is fascinating to observe how various plot twists change the tone and texture of the engagement.
In this sense, Simona Halep truly authored a “change of ends” against Belinda Bencic in the Madrid semifinals on Friday.
The push-and-pull of competition regularly (though not always — see the 1988 French Open women’s final between Steffi Graf and Natasha Zvereva) involves a continuing series of statements and replies, of blows landed and blows absorbed. As players constantly change ends, the layout of the sky is different from the layout on the court. The conditions in the air change, and the conditions of the battle change as opponents adjust and react in this delicate dance.
The two athletes in the arena constantly have to respond to what the opponent does, and on many occasions, they do… but it is noticeable that a statement from one opponent — if delivered at the right time — can change a contest in ways that don’t apply to other points in the full match.
Simona Halep threw the first punches on Friday and blitzed Bencic in the first set. If you have been watching Bencic this week in Madrid, though, you knew that such an onslaught was unlikely to be the last word spoken about this match.
Bencic lost the first set to World No. 1 Naomi Osaka in the quarterfinals. She calmly regrouped in the second set, then fell behind 5-3 in the third… and broke Osaka when the reigning U.S. and Australian Open champion served for the match. Bencic reeled off four straight games and two straight service breaks to take that contest, 7-5 in the third. Bencic entered this match 10-2 in 2019 in three-setters, doing in the first half of the season (and on a smaller scale) what Aryna Sabalenka did in the second half of the 2018 season.
In a nip-and-tuck second set filled with near misses and small margins, Bencic — thrust into a tiebreaker she had to win to stay alive — summoned her best tennis and announced her presence in an authoritative way. While the back end of the WTA’s top 30 didn’t do a whole lot at this tournament, Bencic — who was No. 18 heading into Madrid — had risen to No. 15 in the live rankings (where she will be this upcoming Monday) and was knocking on the door of the top 10. A Madrid title would have put her exactly two rankings points behind Sabalenka for No. 10.
Bencic was playing better than a No. 18 player in the second set, that’s for sure.
Halep threw her punches in set one and had more to offer in set two, but Bencic landed a big strike to take the match into a third.
As circumstances changed — along with the ends of the court — Bencic arrived at the familiar intersection of fatigue and opportunity. She hadn’t just beaten Osaka in a three-set comeback the day before. Bencic had come back to beat Halep after losing the first set in the Dubai quarterfinals. That was Bencic’s coming-out party this year, the tournament which catapulted her back into the spotlight and told her — not to mention everyone else in women’s tennis — that she had restored her game.
Finally able to stay healthy for a prolonged period, Bencic won four straight three-setters to take that Dubai championship. That alone was impressive enough, but she also won those four matches against four top-10 players: Sabalenka, then Halep, then Elina Svitolina in the semis, then Petra Kvitova in the final.
When Bencic played Halep in Dubai, however, Halep was coming off a punishing run to the Doha final the week before. Bencic did not play that tournament. Halep endured a grueling semifinal win over Svitolina in three sets, and then played a similarly taxing final in which Elise Mertens beat her in three.
In Madrid, Halep was able to get past Ashleigh Barty in straights — tough straights, but straights nevertheless — 7-5, 7-5. She had won bagel or breadstick sets four times in the matches leading up to this semifinal against Bencic, so she severely reduced her time on court.
As players change ends, their circumstances change. So it was that Halep — in this three-set pressure-cooker against Bencic — did not carry the tired legs which factored into the Dubai quarterfinals.
She had taken a punch in that second set, and as resilient as Bencic had been this week and for so much of 2019, Halep had a say in this dialogue of changing ends. She threw the first punch in the third set, immediately grabbing a break lead to put the second-set tiebreaker behind her.
It turned out that instead of a contentious and dramatic 6-4 final set (which most people, myself included, were expecting), Halep was able to take off and fly away. Bencic didn’t lose this match because of her inadequacies — Halep was ultimately the better player — but she did get rattled for one of the very few times in 2019 once Halep jumped on top of her at 3-0.
In the constant changing of ends required in tennis, Halep looked at a battle in a different way. Flipping the script relative to Dubai, she created a force which a normally resistant player — Bencic — could not thwart this time. Two players who are very good at absorbing an opponent’s punches kept dancing around the ring, but in a surprising plot twist, one punch landed by Halep at the right time sent Bencic to the canvas for good.
In the changing of the ends, Simona Halep changed the ending of a three-setter against Belinda Bencic.
The third-set bagel in this semifinal wasn’t what most people likely anticipated after that cracking second-set tiebreaker, but the way this match ended was symbolically appropriate.
Ends are always changing in tennis in more ways than one.