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Simona Halep’s “Azarenka Approach” to Success

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 Since her biggest WTA title in Doha, Halep has withdrawn from four events, only to return in perfect health the very next week:

TOURNAMENT RESULT NEXT TOURNAMENT RESULT
Dubai R32, ret. Indian Wells SF
Rome R16, W/O French Open F
‘s-Hertogenbosch R16, ret. Wimbledon SF
Beijing QF, W/O Singapore ?

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:

YEAR TOURNAMENT RESULT NEXT TOURNAMENT RESULT
2011 Indian Wells SF, ret. Miami W
2011 Stuttgart R16, ret. Madrid F
2011 Rome QF, ret. Roland Garros QF
2011 Eastbourne QF, ret. Wimbledon SF
2011 Beijing R16, W/O Luxembourg W
2012 Rome R16, W/O Roland Garros R16
2012 Montreal R32, ret. US Open F
2012 Tokyo QF, W/O Beijing W
2013 Brisbane SF, W/O Australian Open W
2013 Indian Wells QF, W/O Madrid R32
2013 Wimbledon R64, W/O Carlsbad F

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.

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About David Kane (138 Articles)
23-year-old tennis writer. Long Island raised me, @Twitter made me. My hindrances are deliberate; my whole life is thunder. @DKTNNS

4 Comments on Simona Halep’s “Azarenka Approach” to Success

  1. Why would anyone, like Carole Bouchard, be concerned with Petko when Halep withdrew after the match? Petko couldn’t beat an injured player, she has no business progressing to the next round. Halep made the right decision to compete and finish the match against Petko, the fans who paid to watch that match deserve that. It isn’t her problem that her opponent can’t beat her. And she made the right decision to withdraw to take care of her body, when it was obvious that she’s hurt, with the more important WTA Finals looming. She has done her part at the Beijing tournament, let her take care of her injured self.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. totally agree with the post above.

    Like

  3. This is an excellent piece on this whole Bouchard “non-troversy” – balanced, comprehensive, and well-researched.

    It is hard to believe that there is a self-aware tennis journalist who concludes that one of the problems confronting the WTA is that there is too much of a player overcoming adversity fighting to win her match, but there Bouchard was…

    Dave does a nice job summarizing the often-competing interests between a player, her rivals, the tourneys and the fans. To me yesterday’s non-troversy was in some respects the opposite of what happened to Peng Shuai in New York. In that case you had a clearly-compromised player who was not risking further damage to herself given every opportunity to continue in a match until it became obvious that she had no chance of continuing, much less winning. Then the US Open officials pulled the rip-cord. But until that moment, Brian Earley and the ever-gracious and classy Caroline Wozniacki, among others, balanced competing interests by, if anything, looking the other way to allow Peng to continue, even as an obvious competitive disadvantge to Caro. Yesterday, however, you had a compromised player who COULD (and did) win the match DESPITE risking further-aggravating an existing injury. But again, everyone, as in New York, acted in the best-but-competing interests of the player, her opponent, and the fans.

    Which brings me to Petko. If there is some insinuation by Carole Bouchard or someone else that Halep owed Petko a good “quit”, I am almost certain Petko herself does not feel that way.
    As a competitor, I bet Petko focuses on that fact that she lost more than half her own service points and 90% of Halep’s, in the tiebreaks.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for this article, Dave. But I don’t know if tweets from Carole Bouchard should be described as “ire from the tennis world.” That is of course unless a lot of you tennis writers feel the same way, or the WTA has already penalised or warned Halep due to her “questionable withdrawals.”

    Like

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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