A typical tennis season is not a linear progression for the game’s elite. Rather, it is a series of peaks and valleys, a never-ending soap opera where minor dramas unfold as the greater plot builds towards four separate Sweeps Weeks. Small victories along the way are important, yet man (or woman) cannot live by Madrid (or Rome) alone. The best build their schedules to peak for the best and biggest stages. There is no one way – and rarely a right way – to go about such an endeavor. Play too much and you’re a “vulture.” Play too little and you’re a “part-timer.”
Romania’s Simona Halep has sought a middle ground through her rise to relevance. The No. 2 has maintained a healthy schedule in 2014 but, in the interest of her own health, has become known to drop out of tournaments at the first hint of injury. Since her biggest WTA title in Doha, Halep has withdrawn from four events, only to return in perfect health the very next week:
|Dubai||R32, ret.||Indian Wells||SF|
|Rome||R16, W/O||French Open||F|
The Romanian has been consistently struck by sudden, niggling injuries ahead of major tournaments. Where the first three withdrawals came after weeks where Halep played heavily, yesterday’s walkover in Beijing piqued particular interest as it came after her titanic three-set victory over German Andrea Petkovic. Since winning her home tournament in Bucharest, Halep has had a quiet fourth quarter of the year, losing early in her last three tournaments. The win over Petkovic marked the first time she had won three matches in a row since July, yet the Romanian nonetheless looked out of sorts. Having squeaked past the French Open semifinalist in the opening set, the No. 2 seed called the trainer seconds after clinching the tiebreak. Sporting a thigh wrap on and off since Wimbledon, Halep admitted to left hip pain that required an MRI to ensure readiness for her WTA Finals debut.
Fellow WTA Finals qualifier Ana Ivanovic is the immediate beneficiary of Halep’s withdrawal, who reaches the Beijing semifinal by default. The canceled quarterfinal upset, among others, L’Équipe’s Carole Bouchard; approaching the news from a business perspective, Bouchard would have Halep fined for her persistent mid-tournament pullouts, believing the tournament and even Petkovic herself was burned by Halep’s decision to play long enough to prevent a fourth quarterfinal from being played.
Halep wouldn’t be the first to draw ire from the tennis world for questionable withdrawals. Former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka maintained the very same in-and-out schedule, though on a much larger scale:
|2011||Indian Wells||SF, ret.||Miami||W|
|2011||Rome||QF, ret.||Roland Garros||QF|
|2012||Rome||R16, W/O||Roland Garros||R16|
|2012||Montreal||R32, ret.||US Open||F|
|2013||Brisbane||SF, W/O||Australian Open||W|
|2013||Indian Wells||QF, W/O||Madrid||R32|
After claiming that she only played a Premier 5 event in Rome to avoid a zero-pointer on her ranking, Maria Sharapova hit out her rival for her defiance of the WTA Roadmap in 2012. Her controversial Australian Open medical timeout a year later prompted an about face on this pattern and triggered the Belorussian towards the opposite extreme. In the last eighteen months, Azarenka has played multiple matches in obvious pain to the exacerbation of her injuries. This has likely led to her fall from the world’s Top 20.
We expect the mortal body to do immortal things, and then balk at the notion of it breaking down. Medical timeouts, walkovers, and retirements are all the most unfortunate parts of tennis, but when a player is hurt, all three are on the table. To the extent that Halep developed this injury during her stint in Beijing, she was inevitably going to disappoint someone: the crowd watching her play Petkovic, or the crowd who paid to see her play Ivanovic in the quarterfinals. Watching a player end a match early is marginally better than not showing up at all, but does anyone enjoy watching a clearly injured player compete? Azarenka’s attempts to play through the pain have bordered on unwatchable for anyone with the misfortune to tune in.
Does the story change if Halep came into Beijing with an injury? With a lackluster summer behind her, the Romanian needed matches. With a final major tournament on the horizon, she had two choices: pull out and arrive to Singapore rusty, or complete the tournament and risk incurring pain to the point of having to withdraw from the WTA Finals. Like Azarenka before her, she chose a middle ground. She leaves the Chinese capital with three match wins and a chance to be fresh for one last Sweeps.
The women’s game has been kneecapped by early retirements for the last decade and a half. Athletes determined to play through any obstacle have exhausted their bodies before their potential could catch up. When Simona Halep walks away from the game, a walkover in Beijing or a retirement in Dubai won’t matter. In a career year, the Romanian has taken a thoughtful approach to her season, and played just enough to peak at nearly all of the right times. Though she denied the Beijing crowd a popcorn match against an in-form Ivanovic, she made an investment in a future match-up that just might matter more.