Published On: Thu, Jun 7th, 2018

Halep's adaptability propelled her past Muguruza, into French Open final

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A year ago, Simona Halep had a formula nailed down, and it was working. She used her superior speed and instincts and conditioning to defend like mad. She eschewed risk in favor of consistency, hanging well back behind the baseline, keeping the ball deep, and waiting for her opponent to miss. She put the impetus on her opponent to come up with shots, to go for broke, or else get dragged into protracted, lung-busting exchanges in which they had little hope of outlasting Halep.

That formula made sense, and it played to her strengths. It took her to the top of women’s tennis, and the brink of Grand Slam glory. This quote from Karolina Pliskova at last year’s Rogers Cup – after a loss to another durable, defensive-minded player in Caroline Wozniacki – is illustrative.

“I think it’s tough to play somebody like this,” Pliskova said. “All those girls like Halep and Svitolina, they’re defending no matter what. And you still have to go for your shots, even if it’s close like this, even after you go two hours in the match, it’s just tough sometimes to do only the winners and be the one who is aggressive.”

But Halep also discovered, often painfully, the limits of a tactic that placed the match on her opponent’s racket. At the French Open, she reached the final in 2014 and 2017, and lost both times to more aggressive, more offense-oriented players in Maria Sharapova and Jelena Ostapenko. Sharapova out-winnered Halep 46-20 in the 2014 final. Ostapenko out-winnered her 54-8 last year.

There were reasons for that disparity beyond mentality and approach, of course; Halep is shorter and slighter and has less natural power than either of those players. Better to be the best version of yourself than to try to be something you’re not. But that loss to Ostapenko changed Halep. She vowed not to let anything like it happen to her again, and she’s adopted a different brand of tennis since: playing further inside the baseline, serving bigger, changing direction of the ball more frequently, and taking huge cuts on the run – not just looking to reset points from defensive positions, but looking to turn those points in her favor with one swing of the racket. She lost another Grand Slam final in excruciating fashion at this year’s Australian Open, but she was far from a bystander; she ripped 90 combined winners in the semis and finals.

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

This year’s French Open offered another test to Halep’s new mentality, and, in Thursday’s semifinal match against 2016 champ Garbine Muguruza – a match in which Halep’s No. 1 ranking and a shot at redemption in the final was on the line – she aced it. She handily beat Muguruza, a more powerful and typically more aggressive player, by making a point of taking the initiative. She hit 16 winners to Muguruza’s 14, but that statistic doesn’t even tell the whole story.

Halep was the more aggressive player from the opening ball. Muguruza came out looking to force errors and win the court-position battle by hitting deep down the middle – a tactic that had borne plenty of fruit in the quarters against Sharapova – but Halep flat-out refused to get pushed back off the baseline. Instead, she took the ball on the rise, changed direction, and opened up the court by pulling the trigger up the line. She steadily pressed her advance further and further inside the court, and repeatedly killed points by attacking high balls on the forehand side. In short, she won with offense.

This isn’t about which approach is right or wrong. Defense and counterpunching will continue to butter Halep’s bread, and she’ll still have to lean heavily on those skills against opponents who can outgun her. She’d likely have been forced to dial it back if Muguruza had been hitting the ball cleaner. What’s important is that Halep seems to have figured out how to adjust and tailor her game to any situation. Adaptability has become one of her greatest strengths.

Now, a year after having the title cruelly snatched away from her by an upstart who hit with no conscience, she’s back into the final at Roland Garros, with a fourth crack at becoming a Grand Slam champion.

Sloane Stephens, her opponent this time around, poses an entirely different kind of challenge. She is fast, athletic, and guileful; she can defend like Halep but also crank up the pace and dictate points when she decides to. Halep will likely have to adapt again.

We’ve seen Halep put together dominant runs that have ended with bewilderingly ugly defeats. We’ve seen her fall apart with the finish line in view. But, while she may not be immune to another untimely meltdown, she’s making her game increasingly matchup proof. It’s hard not to like her chances Saturday.

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