Simona Halep and an allowance for the unexpected

It was supposed to be Victoria Azarenka’s time again.

At least, it felt as though the one nicknamed “Vika” was in great position to record a victory on Wednesday afternoon at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Azarenka has stood up to Serena Williams better than anyone else on the WTA Tour over the past three years, certainly in the most important matches. A two-time major champion, Azarenka played like one against Serena at Wimbledon in one of the best matches of 2015. Keeping in mind that Azarenka pushed Williams in both the 2012 and 2013 U.S. Open finals, it seemed fitting that Azarenka would advance to the semifinals and move one step away from becoming Serena’s final hurdle on the road to the Grand Slam. No opponent in Saturday’s upcoming final would have been more appropriate.

Ah… would have been.

We can’t allow for the possibility anymore. Simona Halep got in the way. Yet, having acknowledged that Azarenka would have created the biggest splash, Halep has — over the past 72 hours in Flushing, New York — washed away the sour taste of this tennis season. More than that, she’s offered a picture-perfect example of the danger of leaping to conclusions.

Point-blank, I felt there was barely any chance that Halep — a limping, struggling, unhappy, physically and emotionally taxed player on Monday against Sabine Lisicki — could recover to the point of being able to best Azarenka, especially in a three-set match. Maybe, just maybe, Halep could have caught fire early and Azarenka could have gone away meekly, but that’s not how Azarenka rolls. The Belarusian always punches back, and with Halep looking as physically limited as she did against Lisicki, toughing out three sets appeared to be a request Halep could not grant.

Even with days off at the majors, Halep emptied herself on Monday. Her quarterfinal against Azarenka figured to go the way of the men’s quarterfinal between Kevin Anderson and Stan Wawrinka. Anderson played a four-hour, 18-minute match on Monday, and had nothing left for a proven player, someone who — like Vika — is a two-time major champion. Wawrinka had been there, and he smelled blood. Azarenka, already the winner of an epic match this tournament against Angelique Kerber in the third round, figured to have more than enough staying power, more than enough resilience, more than enough patience to outlast Halep.

When Monday’s escape against Lisicki was sealed, Halep had certainly achieved something substantial in that moment alone. She had learned to deal with a torrent of unsatisfying feelings and painful sensations. She could not hit through the court or run the way she wanted to. She had to survive on guile and willpower, much more than athletes normally have to. Halep gained a ton of added respect throughout the tennis community… but with that newfound supply of respect in tow, her fuel tank was supposed to run low against a player who had also gone through a lot of tough times earlier this year. Azarenka was Halep… only with more years of experience on tour and a steadier upward progression through the course of this tennis season.

This was, in short, the kind of match in which Halep figured to compete well and earn yet more admiration… but not win on the scoreboard.

This was supposed to be Azarenka’s time to meet Serena on Saturday… but I did not allow for the unexpected.

*

Simona Halep definitely grew up as a tennis player against Lisicki, and so it was no shock that she comported herself so well on Wednesday against Vika. What was striking, though, is that Halep’s fierce intent and constant tunnel-vision focus were married with a body which looked renewed.

Halep — the player who produced such a marvelous 2014 season, the player who resurfaced in August in both Canada and Cincinnati — re-emerged on Wednesday at Ashe Stadium. She took her survival skills, court craft, footspeed, and ball-redirecting magic to the levels seen for much of last year.

In what was a thoroughly entertaining match, the best of four WTA quarterfinals and the best quarterfinal provided by either tour in New York, Halep made a 180-degree turn from her injury-hampered fourth round against Lisicki. The cleanness of her strokes registered firmly in the mind’s eye, but so did the shape of the ball she hit. Whereas a lot of bloopers and loopers dominated the Lisicki match, here was Halep, two days later, trading roundhouse punches with Azarenka, who is herself one of the toughest competitors in women’s tennis. Moreover, when Azarenka belted a crosscourt backhand into her ad corner, Halep was often able to not only run the ball down, but return it with enough depth that Azarenka couldn’t get on top of a point. On other occasions, Halep didn’t generate quite as much depth on a defensive retrieval, but the mere act of getting there forced Azarenka to hit an extra ball. On some occasions — certainly enough to matter — Azarenka subsequently rushed the swinging volley toward the opposite sideline or corner. Halep shrank the court and planted seeds of doubt in Azarenka’s mind.

This is why the final stat line looked like this:

It was more than simply something I didn’t expect, though. I didn’t really make much of any allowance in my mind that it could happen.

I didn’t think Halep had a realistic chance at winning the U.S. Open, but now? It’s hard to think she doesn’t.

OH, you say. Isn’t Serena in the final?

Funny you should mention that… it gets to the final point I wish to make here.

*

First of all, just because any two-bit pundit from the anonymity of a keyboard says that Player X has (or lacks) a realistic chance of winning, that doesn’t make it so. Predictions shouldn’t be taken too seriously as a general rule. Moreover, predictions are not the job of the writer; they are a curiosity-increasing device meant to generate conversation, perhaps a little buzz, and maintain a lively Twitter feed with highly interactive dimensions and properties.

The one time predictions should be focused on is if the author of the prediction goes out of his or her way to say that “This prediction is something I’m staking my reputation on,” or “I’ve never felt more certain of a prediction in my life.” When a writer does that — or says something to the effect of, “If I’m wrong here, I’ll dress like a cartoon character and stand on my head in the center of the town square for 10 hours as penance” — well, the writer better be right. If not, s/he has chosen to publicly associate his or her reputation with a pick. Writers who are sensible don’t make that kind of pick very often, and when they do, they choose their spots very, very carefully.

None of that applied to this Azarenka-Halep prediction I internally made, but I was so convinced of an Azarenka victory that I didn’t envision a Halep win until the match began. It’s true that Halep looked completely spent and drained of all energy (and beyond that, a measure of phsyical capability) on Monday, but for someone who fought so well on that afternoon — and who impressed me a great deal with her perseverance against Lisicki — I should have given her more of a chance in this match. Full stop.

Precisely because of that reality, it seems pretty pointless to not give Halep a chance at beating Serena on Saturday… and before that, it means not dismissing the chances of Flavia Pennetta, a very resilient player in her own right, to beat Halep on Thursday in the semifinals and then give Serena a battle in the final.

Allowing for the unexpected — time and time again, I need to incorporate that more into the way I think about sports.

Yet, as a counterbalance to that inclination, you have not seen me give Roberta Vinci a shred of a chance in Thursday’s first semifinal.

Matt, aren’t you going against your own advice? Don’t you need to limit the extent to which you discount certain players’ chances in any competition? Don’t you need to practice what you preach and become more expansive in your thought world?

Don’t bail out right away, man… come on!

Well, I have this cartoon character’s costume in my house, and the town square isn’t too far away from where I live…

*

That laugh line aside, here’s what’s perhaps the bottom line about Simona Halep — not just after this amazing performance against Victoria Azarenka, but after the past 72 hours in New York: The world No. 2 might have become the very kind of player whose capacity to pleasantly surprise has reached that top tier, that highest sphere, the point where (paradoxically) nothing becomes too surprising anymore.

In making herself that kind of player, Halep has taken the discouraging and wayward months of spring and early summer, on clay and grass in Europe, and put them in the rearview mirror. Reborn and with a renewed appetite, plus an expanded capacity for absorbing physical punishment, Halep has — in short order — re-established herself as one of the leading lights on the WTA Tour, the kind of player who will remain at the center of this sport’s dramas for the next decade.

Allowing for the unexpected is something Simona taught me on Wednesday; I’ll try to be less surprised by the wondrous things she does on tennis courts in the future.

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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