Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (pictured above) didn’t score an aberrational victory over Simona Halep in last year’s U.S. Open in New York… because she defeated Halep again in the second round of the 2015 French Open on Wednesday.
Lucic-Baroni, whose remarkable tennis story can’t be repeated enough, won a 7-5 first set and then hammered Halep (and the tennis ball) in a 6-1 second set that has made Maria Sharapova the clear favorite to make the women’s final in the bottom half of the draw.
It will be very easy to look at Halep’s press-conference answers — after this loss and her Australian Open exit against Ekaterina Makarova — and come to the conclusion reached by tennis commentator Rennae Stubbs in this tweet:
Haleps attitude just kills her in matches like this! @rolandgarros …. Her go to attitude to deal with pressure is just to mentally quit
— rennae stubbs (@rennaestubbs) May 27, 2015
After losing to Makarova in Melbourne, Halep said this about reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open: “Last year was a big result for me here. Now I cannot say it’s very big but [it] is enough for me.”
After this latest loss to Lucic-Baroni in Paris, Halep had this to say:
“… if I lost today, it doesn’t mean that I cannot play anymore or I don’t win any more matches. I just want to take the decision to see what I did wrong, what I have to do better, to be better, and to speak with my team, because together we have to decide some things. You know, I feel okay. Emotions, no, I don’t feel anymore emotions. They are gone. Maybe I had pressure as well, but, you know, I feel more relaxed now than before the match.”
You can look at those two quotes and identify a player who struggles with pressure, especially the pressure of (in Australia) a new tennis season and (in Paris) defending finalist points from 2014. However, it’s a severe overreach to say that Halep is, fundamentally, a weak player between the ears.
A little bit of perspective — not a lot, just a little — will suffice to reinforce this point:
Unlike Eugenie Bouchard — whose 2015 has been a free-falling mess from the start — Halep has produced some quality results. A major quarterfinal in Australia is nothing to sneeze at; it’s just that the way she meekly exited against Makarova left a bad taste in the mouth of memory. Halep won Indian Wells and battled Serena Williams in the Miami semifinals before losing in three contentious sets. She didn’t win a European claycourt title, but she reached semifinals in Stuttgart and Rome. That’s not great, but it’s hardly anything to sneeze at.
Entering the French Open, Halep’s 2015 represented a reasonably good response to the bulls-eye created by her breakthrough 2014 season. Viewing her as a fundamentally weak competitor, someone who falters at the first sign of adversity or anything to that effect, sells her short. Such a comment also overlooks her results, especially in Indian Wells and Miami.
However, as inherently unfair as it is to view Halep as a mentally fragile player, there’s some truth in what Stubbs tweeted — it just exists on a small and perhaps temporary scale. The key word in that previous sentence is “temporary,” because Simona Halep needs to make sure it doesn’t become “permanent” or “entrenched.”
What is the measure of truth in Rennae Stubbs’s tweet? It’s that while Halep is hardly a mentally weak player in general, each of her last three major tournaments have featured surprising flameouts — early ones to Lucic-Baroni in New York and Paris, and a timid no-show against Makarova in Melbourne. When Halep made the final in the 2014 French Open and the semis at Wimbledon a month later, she made herself a target. While a lot of psychologically-laden speculation is floating around Halep right now — particularly when trying to ascertain what kind of player she is — it seems both safe and fair to conclude that Halep certainly isn’t handling the pressure of the majors at this point in time.
Does this mean she’s never going to win a major? Definitely not. In three years, Serena Williams probably (we think) won’t be as formidable as she still is today. Halep will be 26, in her physical prime. The banquet table of her very promising career is still spread before her. It’s far too early to use this loss as an indicator that Halep’s headed for consistent disappointments in the biggest tournaments on the calendar. That’s much more a concern for other players who are either older or who haven’t achieved as richly to this point in their careers.
The key for Halep is to make sure that this temporary loss of nerve and strength at the majors does not become a regular reality. She doesn’t need to win Wimbledon, but a quarterfinal showing at minimum — ideally a semifinal appearance — would go a long way toward reviving the player who so thoroughly impressed the tennis community at this time last year.
What Halep also needs to realize is this: Much as Lucie Safarova presented Ana Ivanovic with a bad matchup at the 2014 French Open (in the third round), Lucic-Baroni is obviously a rough opponent for Halep. Ivanovic couldn’t solve Safarova a year ago, but great players find ways to overcome bad matchups against lower-ranked players when it really counts. Sure, a bad matchup can and will translate into losses here and there, but the great ones build a fortress at the majors and other high-profile events on tour.
Halep’s loss to Lucic-Baroni in New York felt like an aberration at the time, but as said at the beginning of this piece, that’s no longer the case. If Simona Halep wants to scale the mountaintop in women’s tennis, she needs to fortify not just her strokes, but the ways in which she responds to pressure and in-form opponents.
Halep is hardly the epitome of what a mentally weak tennis player looks like… but she must put in a lot of work to improve the ways in which she handles difficult situations in her sport’s most consequential tournaments.
That seems like a fair way to respond to a puzzling loss… and excessively harsh analytical tweets… for a 23-year-old athlete in the spotlight.