On Tuesday evening, Simona Halep received an award – the 2018 ITF World Champion for women's singles. The recognition was apt for the defending French Open champion and the 2018 year-ending World No 1, and what made it even more fitting was that the presentation took place in Paris, her city of joy. The crowning glory of Halep’s career had come here, 12 months ago, when she won the 2018 French Open title.
But it is also in the French capital that the gritty 27-year-old has experienced heartbreak. Twice.
Tales of the Romanian reaching the summit clash at Roland Garros in 2014 and 2017 only to finish as runner-up on both occasions have been recited too often. And on Thursday, when the current World No 3 took to Court Philippe Chatrier for her quarter-final, there was another heartbreak in store.
However, this will not be remembered as the match Halep lost. It was a match that 17-year-old Amanda Anisimova won, with an emphatic 6-2, 6-4 scoreline in only 68 minutes.
“I feel sad because every time when I lose, I'm sad,” said Halep. “And I'm a little bit upset because I couldn't make my game. I couldn't move normally.”
The Romanian has struggled at the big events since cracking the Grand Slam code in Paris last year. Halep, ranked No 3 in the world, lost in the third round at 2018 Wimbledon and suffered a first-round defeat at the US Open. She made a fourth-round exit from the Australian Open and has failed to win a single title this year and is likely to drop out of the top-five when the rankings are released on Monday.
As good as Halep is at retrieving, she can at times be rendered helpless by her opponents’ aggression. At the 2018 US Open, another heavy hitter, Kaia Kanepi had blown her off-the-court.
The youngster from Florida was playing in only her 11th match in the main draw of a Slam, yet there were no signs of any nerves when it came to playing the former World No 1. Instead, Anisimova started in a blaze of hard-hitting strokes that Halep, who has the ability to chase down the most immaculately timed and precisely placed balls, had no answer to. Right from the offing, the teenager did not allow the defensive Halep to settle and clocked up a total of 25 winners.
Anisimova struck the ball cleanly and precisely from the get-go, rarely giving Halep a look-in. The American converted her very first break point in the sixth game, to go 4-2 up, by cracking a powerful, heavy backhand, to Halep’s forehand that the out-of-position Romanian sent well long. In the next game, Anisimova saved a break point of her own with a strong serve and sealed the 5-2 advantage by cracking a backhand down the line.
Halep was left to play catch-up for the next four games, as the American won the first set 6-2 and raced into an assuring 3-0 lead in the second.
This pure shot-making has been Anisimova’s calling card in the big league. During the Australian Open earlier this year, the 2017 Junior US Open champion, out-hit the powerful Aryna Sabalenka to make it to the fourth round at Melbourne Park. But it isn't all about power for the American, who has roots in Russia. She has the finesse and craft to mix things up.
Take the last game of the match for example. Halep was serving at 4-5, 30-15; Anisimova, sizing up Halep’s deep court position, went for an audacious drop-shot, and pulled it off. The Romanian then double-faulted, and then the teenager cracked a solid backhand down the line to seal the tie.
“She’s really got a very complete game," said Nick Saviano, an elite coach who has worked with Sloane Stephens, had told The New York Times. "She can come forward and volley. She can drop shot, has a great return and a good serve. And Amanda, even when she was little in practice, she couldn’t wait to play points and get competitive.”
Anisimova is one of those rare junior champions that had quickly made the transition to seniors. Only two years ago the American had finished runners-up in the girls’ championships at Roland Garros. The first player, male or female, born in the 2000s to make a Slam semis, there are a few records that Anisimova has notched up this week: she is the youngest American woman to make the semi-finals at a Grand Slam since Venus Williams at the 1997 US Open and the youngest American woman to make the French Open semis since Jennifer Capriati in 1990.
“I can't believe it,” Anisimova said during the courtside interview. “This is honestly more than anything I could ask for. I knew if I wanted to win today, I had to do something different because this wasn't going to be an easy match to win. I'm really happy with my performance, because this is one of the best matches I've ever played.”
Anisimova had to be at her attacking best, given that she was up against one of the most defensively sound players on the women’s tour.
Being the defending champion comes with its own pressures, and Halep has been struggling to cope with that tag this French Open. The small-built but sure-footed Romanian was stretched to three sets in the first and third round, but had managed to battle into the last eight. In the French Open final last year, Halep had scripted a turnaround from a set and break down to defeat Sloane Stephens. And Anisimova got a glimpse of how Halep can claw her way back into the match as she leveled the contest from a second-set 4-1 blowout to 4-4. But where Stephens was measured, Anisimova was exuberant.
She kept the foot on the pedal; didn’t second-guess her attacking options and motored towards victory.
“I knew that she's going to play very well, but she played great today,” said Halep of her teenaged rival. “All credit to her, because she made a good match, a big match,” continued Halep, disappointed from her side of the net that tension restricted her game. Nerves a little bit. Stressed because I felt that I'm playing well, and maybe my expectations for myself were big today. Maybe I couldn't handle the tension in my body so I couldn't play my best and I couldn't move at my best level.”
More than her fellow countrywoman Stephens, Anisimova’s fearless, attacking play revived memories of another youngster who set the stage ablaze not so long ago. In 2017, Jelena Ostapenko, then a little-known Latvian, bludgeoned her way all the way to the French Open title. If Anisimova were to follow into her footsteps, she will become the first teenager since the 19-year-old Maria Sharapova (at 2006 US Open) to win a major.
Updated Date: Jun 07, 2019 12:29:33 IST