Glorious suffering, screaming ironies, and Simona Halep’s classroom

Anyone who has played tennis with at least some desire to win a match — no matter how relaxed or recreational the setting — could relate to what Simona Halep was going through on Monday afternoon at the U.S. Open.

No one who has played tennis in a purely recreational context could possibly relate to what Simona Halep was enduring inside Louis Armstrong Stadium in her match against Sabine Lisicki.

Wait a minute — which statement is true? These are contradictions, are they not?

Precisely the point, mon ami. Tennis invites contradictions and unearths ironies. Suffering can be glorious in this sport, and as much as pundits (from the safety of their keyboards) can relentlessly proclaim the need for certain players to win major championships, sometimes, victories at a lower place on the tennis food chain can become profoundly significant occurrences, moments when appraisals of tennis stars begin to change.

Such a moment unfolded — or at least, it feels that way — on a brutally hot Monday in New York, inside the stadium where U.S. Open championship matches used to be held (from 1978 through 1996).

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Understand this before going any further: Simona Halep will very likely fail to win the U.S. Open.

First, she’s carrying around a wounded body. An in-form Victoria Azarenka would likely need to suffer another injury (let’s hope she doesn’t, for her sake most of all) in order to lose to Halep in Wednesday’s quarterfinals. Azarenka is in perfect position to capitalize on Halep’s lack of physical freshness. However, let’s say Halep somehow gets through that match. If she wins, she would very likely need three sets and a battle of more than two and a half hours, which is what she needed to eclipse Lisicki on Monday. Halep would then face the need to play matches on consecutive days, since the new U.S. Open schedule does not give all four semifinalists equal breaks between quarterfinal and semifinal matches. The two top-half semifinalists will come from a pair of Tuesday quarterfinal matches, but Halep and Azarenka are in the bottom half on Wednesday, so the winner of their match would not get a day off before a Thursday night semifinal.

If Halep is going to even make the final (where she’d probably play this person — what’s her name, something about a person trying to win all four legs of the Grand Slam for the first time in 27 years?), she would need to undergo a remarkably quick physical recovery, such that her body would allow her to play top-shelf tennis against the player many feel is the second-best WTA performer on tour when not beset by some kind of injury-related problem (Azarenka).

Halep is very probably going to lose in the quarterfinals of a hardcourt major, and analytically, that’s going to be enough.

There’s irony in that statement — irony as loud as the words of frustration Halep screamed through much of her match against Lisicki, to which we now devote our attention.

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Some matches are memorable for the quality, some for the drama, some for the stakes, some for all three. The matches most tennis fans cherish with particular fondness are those played at the highest levels by the best players on the biggest stages.

However, the constant variety of sport enables spectators and fans to appreciate the competitions which don’t fit into those categories above. Sometimes, a tennis match is meaningful for what it tells us about the athletes as competitors, and what it suggests about their futures in the sport. For Simona Halep, a discussion about her competitive chops has in many ways come full circle. She almost surely won’t win this tournament — probably not her next match — but she has definitely made it possible, even necessary if you wanted to make that claim, to re-evaluate her heart and her career.

Back in the Australian Open, Halep caused a stir after a tame and timid performance in the quarterfinals against Ekaterina Makarova. She said that making the quarterfinals felt like it was “enough,” unsettling those who had just watched her reach the 2014 Roland Garros final and the subsequent Wimbledon semifinals. Halep was clearly not comfortable in the major-tournament spotlight for most of this year. Having to defend something — not just points, but a reputation or status in the sport — is a burden when faced for the first time. Halep did not relish this position, and it showed. Saying or at least suggesting that a quarterfinal result was “enough” is something you don’t hear from an aspiring major champion. The tennis community wondered how much fight the self-proclaimed “Fighter Girl” really had in her bones and marrow.

Monday’s win over Lisicki was hardly artful or pleasant to watch. It was an aesthetic train wreck. However, one of the many great things about tennis — a savage sport and anything but the genteel country-club activity casual sports fans often perceive it to be — is that if a match stinks in terms of quality, you can still learn about the people playing it.

This is where we come back to the beginning: Anyone who has played tennis with the intent to win a match — even if it’s just with a friend or with your significant other at the municipal courts just down the street — could understand what Halep was feeling for most of this match on Monday.

The ball wasn’t popping off the racquet. Movement was sluggish, especially to the backhand side in the ad corner. Racquets were flung. Arms and hands were waved in disgust when heading to the chair for changeovers. The full gamut of emotions — mostly negative — coursed through Halep’s mind. We didn’t need to guess about this. We knew. We could see it… because we had felt it, any one of us who has played tennis trying to keep the goddamn ball between the f—ing lines. We could relate to Halep.

Yet, we couldn’t relate to Halep at all.

Tennis and its wondrous contradictions were hard at work in this match.

When trying to win a match against your best friend from college or against your spouse, you’re not trying to uphold a reputation in a global sport. You’re not trying to recapture your status as an elite player and a top-level major-title contender on tour. You’re not trying to make your first U.S. Open quarterfinal and affirm the generally strong season you’ve had on hardcourts, the one surface where you’ve played well in 2015. You’re not trying to beat a headcase of an opponent, Sabine Lisicki, who offered you the first set but won it because you refused to take it. You’re not dealing with a deteriorating body, which had to win two straight sets and play a prolonged match because of your inability to tuck away the first set, which you served for at 5-4.

Halep found herself in that cruel place for an elite athlete: She should have been leading the match heading into the second set, but when she failed and her body began to ask questions she might not be able to answer, she knew what all athletes knew: Even though injuries are terrible, succeeding earlier in competitions rather than later enables injuries to decrease in importance. Sure, Halep was hurting, but if she had won the first set, she could have gotten off the court after two. When she gifted that first set to Lisicki, she stared down the barrel of having to play three sets in a broiling sun.

Having meekly bowed out of Australia; having done nothing of note during the clay season or at Wimbledon; and having made improvements over the summer and reaching the finals in both Canada and Cincinnati, Halep needed this one match. Sure, every match feels like it’s needed, but since Lisicki is a notoriously erratic performer and someone who just doesn’t maintain composure very well in non-Wimbledon major tournaments, Halep — when she took the court on Monday — really needed to secure this “dubya” and plant herself in the quarterfinals, reminding the rest of the WTA Tour that she can handle the earlier rounds of the majors. A loss here — even with the injuries, even with the suffering, even with the searing heat — would have undone much of what she’d accomplished in Toronto and Ohio.

No, Simona Halep didn’t need to win the 2015 U.S. Open. She still doesn’t.

She did need to win this match.

Yes, Halep received a lot of help from Lisicki, a player who attempted a low-percentage drop shot when Halep was stuck about two yards behind the baseline in the opposite corner of the court. (The shot didn’t clear the net, of course, and it represented the aesthetics of the match in a nutshell. The two players combined for over 100 unforced errors, with Lisicki providing 72 of them and a minus-35 winners-unforced differential.) However, the simple act and fact of persevering should go a long way towards burying that moment in Melbourne from January.

It really does seem — though it’s only a preliminary assessment, one which will be tested in the fullness of time — that Halep, an immensely creative player, has learned to compete in 2015. This tennis season has given her so many lessons about handling pressure; dealing with changed and heightened expectations; coping with physical suffering and bad days at the office; and managing the combination of emotions and energies on the court.

Had Halep lost this match, it would have been one more in a long series of setbacks this season, setbacks which could have been couched in this manner:

Now, even though she’s unlikely to make her way through Azarenka, Halep has put on the clothing of a scrapper, someone who doesn’t just win with artistic brushstrokes, but by persevering and — chiefly — relishing a good tussle.

We didn’t start 2015 feeling that way about her. Now, as long as she can physically heal, Halep seems a lot more ready to produce a big 2016 after a spring and summer of discontent.

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File away this win over Lisicki as a moment that might become a turning point in Fighter Girl’s career.

It could become for her the equivalent to Novak Djokovic beating Viktor Troicki in the first round of the 2010 U.S. Open after training two sets to one and a break down in the fourth.

No, let’s not expect Halep to win nine majors with many more on the way. However, if this U.S. Open did adjust expectations of Halep in terms of her future, it’s certainly clear that the forecast is a lot sunnier than it was before the tournament began.

That — like Monday’s match against Lisicki — should count as a victory, even if a defeat at the hands of Azarenka seems imminent.

Contradictions and ironies abound… but so does optimism for the career of one Simona Halep.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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