Wimbledon 2019: Simona Halep channels inner clay courter to overcome Zhang Shuai's challenge and reach semi-final

  • This year at Wimbledon, Halep has defused the power of three superior attackers in a row, thanks largely to her patience and ability to hold her ground.

  • As Halep showed in her quarter-final against Zhang Shuai, channelling your inner clay courter is just about the only way to turn the tables in that situation.

  • With a fairly manageable opponent in Elina Svitolina next, Halep's newfound love for grass court could take her further than she's ever been at Wimbledon.

Patience in tennis is most often associated with clay. On the slow, high-bouncing surface, it is considered supremely important to resolutely hold your ground and goad the opponent into errors — a trait usually exemplified to perfection by Simona Halep.

Not surprisingly, it is the exact opposite when it comes to the low-bouncing turf of Wimbledon. On grass, the word patience is stripped of all its virtue and replaced by the less flattering term 'passivity'. You are supposed to be proactive here rather than reactive; you're supposed to take matters in your own hands so that you can preempt the opponent from doing too much damage.

 Wimbledon 2019: Simona Halep channels inner clay courter to overcome Zhang Shuais challenge and reach semi-final

Simona Halep overcame Zhang Shuai's spirited challenge to reach her first semi-final at Wimbledon in five years. AP/Tim Ireland

But what do you do when the damage starts even before you've had a chance to properly warm-up? As Halep showed in her quarter-final against Zhang Shuai, channelling your inner clay courter is just about the only way to turn the tables in that situation.

To say that Zhang got off to a quick start would be selling her short. Zhang didn't just start well, she totally bossed Halep around for much of the first set with her low, deadly strikes. Reading her higher-ranked opponent's serve and groundstrokes like you would a primary school textbook, Zhang broke early and jumped out to a 4-1 lead.

The Chinese practically took the racquet out of Halep's hands with her skiddy shots that seemed to gain pace after bouncing. Changing direction at will and finding impossible angles, she looked like a grasscourt connoisseur's dream in those early stages. And whenever the Romanian threw up desperate slices or lobs to counter the aggression from the other end, Zhang stormed the net with conviction and knocked off easy volleys.

She was doing pretty much every single thing better than her opponent, belying her status as an unseeded underdog.

4-1 threatened to become 5-1 – possibly a point of no return – as Halep went down a further two break points. She saved one of them with a picture-perfect down-the-line backhand winner, signalling that perhaps her best bet to get back into the set was to hit out. But despite trying to be more aggressive than usual, she couldn't stay with Zhang long enough, and the Chinese proceeded to earn two more break points in that game.

Nothing Halep had done until that point had really worked, and her 30-year-old opponent looked determined to run away with the set and put one foot into her first Slam semi-final. So the Romanian went back to the one thing she knows she excels at – extending points by whatever means possible and patiently waiting for errors.

It paid immediate dividends. After a few lung-busting rallies where both women showcased their best skills to the fullest, Halep elicited just enough errors from Zhang to get the hold. In the context of the match and the occasion, that was a massive moment.

"I think everything started to change from 4-1," Zhang said after the match. "I played really well. But she tried to go deeper and tried to (put pressure) – because she is really good at defending."

Halep recognised the importance of that game too. "Winning that game, I really believed that I was still in the set," she said in her presser. "If the score would have been, like, 5-1, I think the set would have been gone."

You'd think that winning the first set would be more important for the underdog than the favourite, but we've often seen Halep fade away after going down against a more attack-minded opponent. That first set was absolutely crucial for both players, especially since they were playing at such a high (and possibly unsustainable) level.

As it turned out, the disappointment of losing that potential 5-1 lead proved too demoralizing for Zhang. She got broken in the very next game, and while she did manage to take the set to a tiebreaker, her seemingly untouchable play from the first half of the set was gone. Halep was just a little bit steadier and a little bit tougher to hit past in the closing stages and she wrapped up the breaker 7-4.

The second set was competitive only for a while, as Halep used all of her experience to manoeuvre the rallies in her favour and get the early break. Zhang was no longer accurate enough with her trademark low shots and one break quickly became two. Halep served it out without much trouble and is now into the Wimbledon semi-final for the first time in five years.

The Romanian's grasscourt credentials have always been a little suspect, not least because of her tendency to be too reactive with her game. But at this year's Championships she has defused the power of three superior attackers — Victoria Azarenka, Coco Gauff and Zhang — in a row, thanks largely to her patience and ability to hold her ground. Is she showing us that she had the game to do well on grass all along, but just not the right opportunity?

"I have a lot of experience now. I'm more confident. I love grass. It's the first time I am saying that," she purred later, much to the amusement of the interview room.

With a fairly manageable opponent in Elina Svitolina next, Halep's newfound love for the surface could well take her further than she's ever been at Wimbledon. Who says patience is not rewarded on grass?

Updated Date: Jul 10, 2019 08:27:16 IST