No, Simona Halep doesn’t deserve the Congressional Medal of Honor for beating Oceane Dodin on Thursday in the second round of the Miami Open. Halep was clearly in physical discomfort for much of the match, but not to the point where she couldn’t move or perform basic tennis actions. Her serve was not as forceful as it could have been, the most direct and substantial effect of pain between the right side of her neck and her right shoulder. The source of pain required medical attention multiple times during the match, once as part of a medical timeout and other times as attention during sitdowns.
Yet, not being able to serve as well as possible should not deter the World No. 1 from beating Dodin, who came into this match as a lucky loser with a bad wheel. Had Dodin been physically fit, Halep’s expectations would have been lowered. To be honest, she might not have won. Nevertheless, Halep had to deal with life as it was, not as it otherwise might have been. She was supposed to win this match. There is no need to throw a parade for her.
That said, there is also no need to continue to bang a drum which commentators continue to play on American television. (I can’t speak for commentators in other nations.)
Patrick McEnroe played this drum Friday night during Halep’s Indian Wells semifinal loss to Naomi Osaka. Lindsay Davenport — who is an excellent commentator — compared Halep’s run at No. 1 to Andy Murray’s stay at No. 1 last year.
If only Murray achieved then what Halep has achieved this year. I won’t offer a knee-jerk reaction and abruptly downgrade Davenport as a commentator. She is too consistently good and too levelheaded for me to think less of her. However, let’s just say that Davenport committed an unforced error and had a very rare bad moment behind the microphone.
On no planet do Murray’s 2017 at No. 1 and Halep’s 2018 run at No. 1 represent fundamentally similar journeys.
Halep has consistently been a semifinal-level player on the WTA Tour and came within two games of winning the Australian Open in a high-quality final against Caroline Wozniacki. She did get whacked at the year-end championships last fall, probably the strongest and closest similarity to a normal Andy Murray experience, but her accomplishments as a World No. 1 rate a few notches higher than Murray’s.
Whether it’s Pat McEnroe or Davenport dishing out the commentary, Halep seems to receive more criticism from American TV commentators on her “attitude” and how poorly she handles adverse situations, particularly when an opponent such as Garbine Muguruza (2017 Cincinnati) or Osaka (2018 Indian Wells) hits her off the court and bosses her around.
In 2017, questions about Halep’s attitude were not entirely unwarranted. She was extremely negative in the Toronto semifinals in a manner which frustrated head coach Darren Cahill. It had long been true that Halep got down on herself to a degree which her talents and stature in the sport did not warrant. To be clear, it’s not as though the “attitude” criticism has not contained considerable merit with Halep in the past — it has. It was often a part of the conversation, and reasonably so.
Yet, commentators have to allow for the possibility — and then the reality, if applicable — that athletes can and do evolve.
Halep — by making the Australian Open final and winning one of the matches of the year in the semifinals against Angelique Kerber — announced herself in a bold new way. Then she backed up that result with a semifinal in Doha and another semifinal in Indian Wells, sometimes not playing her best tennis but consistently powering through difficult scoreboard situations to claim three-set triumphs.
Osaka — magnified by her thrashing of a still-rusty Serena Williams earlier this week in Miami — is playing at a very high level. She showed her best form against Halep, something which ought to have minimized a focus on Halep’s attitude. Yet, that didn’t stop Pat McEnroe from using a 2017 lens through which to assess a 2018 player. Now comes this Davenport connection to Murray.
It’s all too much. It is excessive, but worse, it applies to a player who is clearly evolving even as some of her tendencies remain.
The simple truth is that Simona Halep can play very poorly at times. Her game is based on holistic competence — doing a lot of things really well and not being particularly weak in any one area. Halep is a living reminder that there are different ways to win tennis matches. Serena Williams’ or Karolina Pliskova’s serves offer one way. A Madison Keys forehand is another way. Muguruza’s reach and court coverage show another path, Petra Kvitova’s power another, Caroline Wozniacki’s defense and consistency still another.
Halep won’t win cheap points on serve to the degree that Serena or Pliskova will. She won’t belt the ball the way Muguruza or Kvitova or Keys will. She doesn’t fit in a neat and tidy box, which means she has to call upon many resources to win matches. This can create the surface appearance that when things are going badly, it’s because of her attitude, a failure to be resourceful.
Yet, commentators should no longer fall for that trap in 2018 — first, because Halep should have earned the benefit of the doubt with her Australian Open performance and a series of strong results, but second, because her struggles are more due to playing poorly than failing to fight.
The reality of Simona Halep’s career has changed, even though the reality of her in-match limitations remains the same.
Hopefully, her attitude — which enables her to keep winning tough three-set matches such as the one against Dodin on Thursday — will soon be seen as a positive, not the negative force it used to be… and no longer is.
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