Simona Halep gallops to glory at Wimbledon

Serena Williams landed few of her heavy punches, committing 26 unforced errors against an astoundingly low three for Simona Halep in the Wimbledon final. And Halep artfully displayed patience during rallies but attacked every chance she had.

When Simona Halep was 10, her mother Tania told her that she dreamed that one day she would see Simona play in the Wimbledon final. Halep did one better.   -  Getty Images

“Wimbledon is a tournament that if you get a bum off the street and ask him about it, he knows Wimbledon.” – Zina Garrison, 1990 Wimbledon finalist.

“You can’t be considered a great player unless you win Wimbledon. That’s the way it is.” – Mats Wilander, who won seven Grand Slam titles but never Wimbledon.

When Simona Halep was 10, her mother Tania told her that she dreamed that one day she would see Simona play in the Wimbledon final. “She said it would be an unbelievable moment,” Halep recalled before this final.

Halep did her proud mom one better. On majestic Centre Court, the cathedral of tennis, she trounced the greatest player in history.

Serena Williams was aiming for her elusive 24th major title to equal Margaret Court’s all-time record. Instead, she suffered the most lopsided Grand Slam final loss, 6-2, 6-2, of her incomparable career.

Halep wanted to make some history of her own, saying, “I’m desperate to win Wimbledon more than to stop her.” She revealed she harboured a second motive: a title would give her a lifetime membership in the prestigious All England Club.

Both the 27-year-old Romanian and the 37-year-old American had endured several bittersweet major final defeats in recent years. In sharp contrast, Simona’s trajectory was upward, while Serena’s was downward.

Halep had lost a trio of three-set heartbreakers in finals that would steadily build her character. “[They] helped me for sure to be different,” she confided after her stunning victory over Williams.

READ | Champion Halep plans Wimbledon return as she wears membership badge of honour

The first setback came against Maria Sharapova at the 2014 French Open. Next, she squandered a 6-4, 3-0 lead to help heavy underdog Jelena Ostapenko prevail at the 2017 French Open. Finally, in a gruelling marathon, Caroline Wozniacki outlasted her at the 2018 Australian Open. Averting what would have been yet another disaster, Halep rebounded from a 6-3, 2-0 deficit to overcome Sloane Stephens at Roland Garros in 2018 to win her first Grand Slam title.

Age has finally caught up with Williams. Though she captured far more major titles (10) after turning 30 than anyone in history, including the ageless Roger Federer (four), she hasn’t won a tournament since the 2017 Australian Open when she was eight weeks pregnant. After triumphing in 21 of her first 25 major finals, the declining Williams has taken only two of her last seven.

“I don’t know what is harder, playing after having a child or playing deep into your 30s,” nine-time Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova told The New York Times.

Only Court, Kim Clijsters and Evonne Goolagong have won majors after having children, and they were all in their 20s then. “My priority is Olympia. No matter what, that’s my priority,” Williams said before the 2018 French Open.

But it’s not just the protracted losing streak that’s most worrisome for Serena Williams. It’s the shocking decisiveness of the last three major defeats: 6-3, 6-3 in the 2018 Wimbledon final to Angelique Kerber; 6-2, 6-4 to Naomi Osaka in the 2018 US Open final; and 6-2, 6-2 to Halep in this Wimbledon final.

When Williams congratulated Halep during the trophy presentation, she said, “She literally played out of her mind,” an exaggeration, suggesting it would take an extraordinary performance to beat her. That clearly is no longer true. But Williams also shockingly acknowledged, “It was a little bit ‘a deer in the headlights’ for me.” Imagine that coming from a former superstar who contested 100 career finals and won 72 of them, including 23 majors and an Olympic gold medal.

Serena Williams was aiming for her elusive 24th major title to equal Margaret Court’s all-time record. Instead, she suffered the most lopsided Grand Slam final loss of her incomparable career.   -  AFP

 

In any sport, especially the individual sport of tennis, an athlete’s confidence can be fragile and short-lived. And right now, Williams’ confidence is perhaps lower than at any time since she won the 1999 US Open at age 17. It’s reminiscent of another highly emotional all-time great, Navratilova. “Martina goes from arrogance to panic with nothing in between,” WTA Tour impresario and tennis historian Ted Tinling once said.

Emotions, as much as strokes and strategy, can separate champions from contenders. “Pressure is a privilege,” Billie Jean King often preaches. Four other P words have figured prominently in Halep’s steadily ascending career: perfectionism, perseverance, poise and patience.

“I have worked a lot on the mental aspect, and it was the main reason I was able to win today,” Halep, once notorious for her negativity and volatility, told ESPN. “Darren [Cahill, her former coach] told me many times I had to improve that area if I want to be a better player. Since then I’ve done everything I could and been very professional. Darren made me a better person and player.”

READ | Wimbledon champion Djokovic and Barty remain atop rankings

Asked what she tells herself now when she, a perfectionist, gets frustrated, Halep explained, “The problem I always had was that after I missed an easy shot, I would hit the next three, four shots out. Now I just calm down and say [to myself], it’s just normal to miss [sometimes]. Then I have a good chance to win the next point. That’s my mentality.”

As tennis legend Chris Evert said, “She’s a perfectionist, but she’s learned she doesn’t have to play perfect tennis to win.”

Cahill was so disappointed, even infuriated, by Halep’s crankiness and erratic competitiveness that he briefly quit as coach two years ago. He returned only when she pledged to improve her attitude.

Halep’s perfectionism, wisely moderated during matches now, paid dividends during rigorous training sessions. She broadened what once was a stylish, but one-dimensional, game. After Halep walloped Elina Svitolina 6-1, 6-3 in the Wimbledon semifinals, she said, “I have a better game these days. I play some drop shots. I use the slice more. The serve is helping me. Now when the ball is coming to me, I know what to do with it. I can play everywhere, against anyone. I know how to change some things when [things] don’t work very well. I feel confident and I’m not scared any more about how the ball bounces. And also I feel stable on my legs, which is very important on the grass.”

To her credit, Halep persevered through tough losses and tough luck. When a brutal draw, injuries and exhaustion sabotaged her chances to win the 2018 Australian Open final against the fresher Wozniacki, she accentuated the positive. She vowed to win the next major final she played. Just four months later, Halep did just that at Roland Garros.

Elina Svitolina, who reached her first Grand Slam semifinal, was walloped 6-1, 6-3 by Halep.   -  AFP

 

Poise has proved to be yet another vital piece in the Halep puzzle. Although she admitted she was nervous — “my stomach was not very well” — before the final, and her leg was twitching when she sat down after the warm-up, it was Williams who looked tense from the first point to the last. Though Williams boasted a 9-1 head-to-head match edge, ESPN analyst Pam Shriver noted, “Serena has to fight a lot of demons.” For starters, Shriver was referring to Serena’s mental meltdown and verbal assault against umpire Carlos Ramos in the 2018 US Open final and her collapse, after leading 5-1 in the deciding set, against Karolina Pliskova in the Australian Open quarterfinals in January.

The experts figured this match pitted the puncher against the counter-puncher. But Williams landed few of her heavy punches, committing 26 unforced errors against an astoundingly low three for Halep. And Halep artfully displayed the fourth P word, patience, during rallies but attacked every chance she had.

In her previous six matches against weak opposition — only Julia Goerges ranked in the top 20 — Williams belted a tournament-high 45 aces, and foes failed to return an amazing 43 percent of her first serves. Equally amazing, Halep broke her opponents’ serve a tournament-high 53 percent of their service games. Halep “read” Williams’ serve placement quite well, and smartly retreated about six feet behind the baseline to return Williams’ potent first serve, which averaged 110 mph. The impressive result: four service breaks in eight Williams service games. After Williams hit only her second ace of the match in the next-to-last game, she raised her arms as if to say, “Where has my great serve been all match?”

Point after point, the blazing fast Romanian tracked down Williams’ most powerful and accurate shots. Sometimes, her superb defence kept her in rallies; other times, her offence conjured winners on the dead run.

In the pivotal two-all game of the second set, Halep displayed both huge assets. With Serena serving at love-15, Halep sprinted from corner to corner to retrieve Williams’ concussive ground strokes until the frustrated seven-time champion tamely netted a forehand. At 15-30, Halep finished a frenetic exchange by dashing to hit a forehand passing shot winner. Then, on 15-40, break point, Halep slugged it out with Williams until the Romanian finally hit short. The much-slower American scrambled forward and hit a backhand approach beyond the baseline. Halep pumped her fist to celebrate the crucial service break.

Interestingly, though Halep grew up playing on hard courts in Romania, which has no grass courts, she’s captured her Grand Slam titles on clay and grass. “I never thought I’d touch my highest level on grass,” she admitted. The versatile Romanian became the fourth active player to reach a Grand Slam final on all surfaces following Sharapova, Serena and Venus.

Though Williams boasted a 9-1 head-to-head match edge against Halep, ESPN analyst Pam Shriver noted, “Serena has to fight a lot of demons.” For starters, Shriver was referring to Serena’s mental meltdown and verbal assault against umpire Carlos Ramos in the 2018 US Open final.   -  AFP

 

What a difference a major title makes. “[Now] I love grass,” said Halep. “It’s the first time when I say that. It’s a little bit dangerous when you play on grass because the feet are not really as stable as you are on hard court or a clay court. That’s why I prefer those surfaces. But now I started to feel it, to have it in my hands, to have it in my legs and also in my mind, which is very important.”

As the smiling Halep clutched the Venus Rosewater Dish during the trophy presentation, the capacity crowd cheered loudly. “I definitely felt the support and the love,” an appreciative Halep later said.

Romanian spectators chanted “See-mo-nah, See-mo-nah.” Fans glued to their television at clubs in her native land also chanted her name. As the first Romanian woman to reach the Wimbledon final, and the first overall (man or woman) to lift the trophy, Halep is the most popular athlete, male or female, in Romania. Sports Illustrated once described the modest, down-to-earth Halep as an “anti-diva.”

Her status as national icon was confirmed last year following her French Open triumph. When her country was informed of her flight arrival time, 22,000 Romanians turned up within 30 minutes at a football stadium to welcome her back and celebrate.

This year the celebration will surely top even that.