Match Striker: The Increasingly Unclassifiable, Increasingly Unstoppable Simona Halep

Simona Halep used to walk onto the court and tell herself to win. Then she would try not to lose, with the predictable result that she often did. She was not totally unsuccessful. She had too much talent — she had won the French Open girls’ title in 2008 — and she rose steadily, though slowly, through the ITF circuit and into the top hundred on the WTA. But sometimes she was awful. “True, bad tennis on this level can be mesmerizing, like any passing calamity,” a New York Times reporter wrote of her loss to Jelena Jankovic at the US Open in 2010.

She was small, sometimes half a foot shorter than her opponents. Except for some unwanted attention after surgery, she was unknown. She was inconsequential. She was always on the road, losing in an early round, then jumping on a plane to fly somewhere else to lose again. The stress affected her body. It slowed her down. Sometimes, she would ask her feet to move and nothing would happen. She was often injured. She was scared. She wasn’t improving. For the first four months of 2013, she won back-to-back matches only once.

Then, last May, she came into the Italian Open, just before Roland Garros, as a qualifier, ranked no. 64. She won seven matches in eight days, including against three top-20 players. Something was different. But what? She credits a change in her mind-set. “What changed was that I allowed myself to be relaxed on the court by taking the pressure off,” Halep said. “I told myself to enjoy it and play with pleasure.” That is, of course, the kind of thing that athletes say. But the alchemy was real. Perhaps this is what pleasure is: She stopped hoping her opponent would beat herself. Instead, she started encouraging her opponent to set herself on fire.

She started to feel her feet. It turns out that she is astonishingly fast. She started to think ahead during points. It turns out that she has uncanny anticipation. She became even faster; knowing where the ball would land let her take head starts. Finally, the strokes became more simple: compact, beautiful, unreadable.

How do you drive another player mad? It’s not enough just to be consistent. Halep learned to disrupt the opposition’s rhythm and disguise her own. At her best, she did not play in patterns. She hit with surprising power. She covered the whole court. She hit balls with heavy power without making a sound. It was Halep who drove Marion Bartoli, fresh from a Wimbledon title, to a teary retirement in Cincinnati. Halep didn’t just play more cleanly than her opponents. She helped them self-combust. When she beat another Wimbledon champion, Petra Kvitova, for the title in New Haven, she made five errors to Kvitova’s 25 errors.

She did nothing better than everyone else except win. Between May and December, Halep won six titles — more than anyone else except Serena Williams on the WTA in 2013.

Halep’s goal for 2013 had been to make the top 20. She finished at no. 11, and was named the most improved player of the year. The award seemed like a pinnacle, a true achievement. She had exceeded expectations. She had shown she could take small tournament titles, that she was a legitimate contender. Still, her record at majors was abysmal. She reliably lost in the first or second round. It seemed like she might be a grinder, too shy and small for the biggest stages, too reliant on the mistakes of others.

Then she figured out how to light the match and start the fire herself.

♦♦♦

Her goal for 2014 — the goal she would admit — was to stay in the top 20. She is now ranked no. 4. With Williams out, she is the second-favorite to win the French Open, behind Maria Sharapova. Halep is, to my mind, a better clay-court player than Sharapova. That doesn’t always matter. Halep dominated Sharapova in the first set of the Madrid Open earlier this month, winning 6-1. But early in the second set, Halep tightened, and Sharapova caught the skittering mouse.

Halep is quiet when she hits the ball and quiet off the court. She has never made it past the second round of the French Open. It remains to be seen whether she can be the kind of competitor who doesn’t want to win but needs to, the kind of player who doesn’t try not to lose but refuses to.

At the end of 2013 — her banner year — Halep did something brave. She left her coach, a fellow Romanian, Adrian Marcu. He had brought her as high as he could, higher than anyone had imagined she could go. She thought differently. She played without a coach in Australia and made the quarters. But she knew she still had a ways to go, and she needed help. At 5-foot-6, she needed a bigger serve. She needed to take more chances. She found a coach, Wim Fissette, who happens to have coached Sabine Lisicki, who is one of the best servers on tour, and Kim Clijsters, who was one of the most aggressive baseline players in her day.

At the Qatar Open soon after she began to work with Fissette, Halep beat three top-10 players on the way to the title, including a victory over Aga Radwanska in the quarters that was one of the most impressive performances of the year. Radwanska had once been Halep’s measure of the impossible. After losing to her 6-1, 6-2 in Melbourne in 2011, Halep had told herself, “I cannot beat her ever.” Halep’s victory over Radwanska in Rome in 2013 had been the biggest confidence boost of her career. But her 7-5, 6-2 win in Doha was something else. It was the kind of match that suggested her strong play so far is just the start.

Halep has said she models her game on Justine Henin. Both are small, smart, precise, and quick. Halep, like Henin, can rip a backhand down the line. But I can see something of Novak Djokovic in her, too — the planar movements, the strong wrists, the simple execution, the surprising, daring shots. She has a talent for hitting winners from defensive positions. She is a defensive aggressor, an aggressive defender. She is becoming unclassifiable.

♦♦♦

She still struggles with injuries. She is still small. She is still quiet. She still has matches when she freezes up. She is still ignored.

She played her first round at the French Open on Philippe Chatrier, the main stadium at Roland Garros. It was early, cold, and gray. The seats were mostly empty. She faced Alisa Kleybanova, a powerful Russian who recently returned after recovering from cancer and has had some impressive results this year. Halep struck a match, tossed it over the net, and stayed clear of the flames herself. Kleybanova had 32 errors in the match. Halep had six. She won the first set 6-0 and went up 5-0 in the second before closing out the match 6-2. Afterward, there was little mention of the match in the press. So far, the story of the tournament is Williams’s confounding loss and the impressive performance of players who are 19, 20, or 21 years old — the next generation.

The future is always arriving. The waves hit the shore and the past recedes. It can be easy to lose sight of the present in that ceaseless exchange. Williams won’t win this French Open. Neither will the world’s no. 2 player, Li Na. The third-ranked player, Radwanska, is not a great threat on clay. But a teenager probably won’t win either.

Halep is 22, though she looks younger. Compared with the Bouchards and Svitolinas, she has been on tour for what seems a very long time. “She’s a very modest person, and she’s trying to play without any pressure as much as possible,” said her manager at the end of 2013. “I’m sure deep down in her mind she has deep ambitions.”

She has a chance to show that she is bigger than we think she is. She has a chance to show that this is her game, her fire, now.

Filed Under: Tennis, French Open, Serena Williams, Simona Halep

louisa-head

Louisa Thomas is a Grantland staff writer and a fellow at the New America Foundation.

Archive @ louisahthomas