Fire & Ice: Simona Halep Settling Into Second Week
Simona Halep is a two-footer.
I’m sorry, let me go back: had the No. 3 seed chosen figure skating over tennis, she would have been a two-footer.
On Olympic ice, a jump must be landed on one leg. But skaters will sometimes touch down on two feet, preventing a fall, but costing points otherwise awarded for superior execution. Programs blighted by two-foot landings are marked conservatively, the skaters who perform them seen as lacking the spark and abandon necessary to earn medals.
Two-footers are in search of perfection, athletes who sacrifice for fear of self-destruction.
The Romanian is one such athlete, one who marched up the rankings possessing consistency and a quiet strength. Hers was an ascent so silent, so void of raucous fanfare, that she was firmly entrenched in the Top 5 before anyone knew her name. Halep’s constant quest for improvement is certainly evident off-court; she has hired three different coaching teams in three years, beginning 2015 with a Romanian/Swedish duo comprised of Victor Ionita and Thomas Hogstedt.
That determination has translated into match toughness, taking her through many tight moments over the last two years. It has also earned plenty of big wins; the French Open runner-up has beaten seven of the nine other Top 10 players since her 2013 breakthrough on the red clay of Rome.
Winning that much makes the losses stick out. What was it that stood between Halep and a truly headline-grabbing 2014?
The short answer: Maria Sharapova, who beat held Halep off in three of the biggest matches of the season, including the finals of Madrid and Paris.
But who reads an editorial for a short answer?
We talk about how well the Romanian played that French Open final, how she rarely looked over-awed and how she forced Sharapova to play her best tennis. We don’t talk about how she argued a call at 4-4 in the third, and how she lost the final eight points of the match.
We talk about how she roared into the semifinals of Wimbledon, only to suffer an ankle injury a few games into playing Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard. We don’t talk about the chances she had to take the opening set anyway, and how she faded to a nervous Bouchard who visibly struggled to serve out the match.
Where the best boil over, that unceasing drive for perfection has caused Halep to burrow.
Figure skater Ashley Wagner was thought to lack the same fire, only on international ice. In a career full of highs, the American’s performances were often just short of spectacular. She planned programs with an arsenal of elements meant to compete with the sport’s elite. When it came time to execute, however, she held back, and would often find herself farther back than she ever intended.
Ashley Wagner was a two-footer.
The Post-Olympic year is meant to showcase new talent as Sochi’s medalists recede into show skating. Wagner elected to continue in a field of ever younger and ever more fearless skaters, all of whom were pushing the limits of what can be done in a four-minute free skate.
After a rough Grand Prix season, she arrived to last week’s US Nationals with her most ambitious content ever. But doubts still lingered. Wagner won the short program with some help from errant rival, Gracie Gold, despite two-footing one of her own jumps in a combination. She would need a perfect free skate to assure herself a third National title.
Skating to the Moulin Rouge! soundtrack, Wagner gave everything she had, attacking each of her seven triple jumps – four in combination – with aplomb. She landed her final triple lutz with one foot and a fist pump to punctuate a perfect, passionately executed performance. With two skaters left, the often restrained panel of judges were so moved that they awarded Wagner the Nationals’ highest total score in history.
Halep is a few rounds removed from her own sport’s veritable final free skate, but she seems to have mirrored Wagner’s change of approach in 2015. The once-unassuming Romanian has been on edge since play began in Melbourne, to the point where if anyone looked vulnerable on that Day 1 debacle, it was her.
Opening play on Rod Laver Arena, she began berating for the slightest technical flaw or tactical error. Her aesthetic ground game acquired a sighing grunt. Her subtle fist pumps became bigger, with extra torque.
But what first seemed like tells of doubt and desperation have revealed themselves to be mere manifests of desire and determination. Halep was sturdier in her second round against the resurgent Jarmila Gajdosova, but no less ruthless. She shut out the home crowd and out-aggressed the Aussie by 21 winners to 16.
The biggest test thus far, however, came against another comeback kid in Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Squeaking out a tight opening set, Halep edged out to a 5-1 lead before the unseeded American blasted back to even the set at five games apiece. Just four months earlier in Flushing, the former No. 2 lost a similar lead to similarly-hyphenated Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who climbed on top of a bewildered Halep to take her out in straight sets.
Rather than turn inward again, she let it all out.
The No. 3 seed won a thrilling rally at 30-all in the next game, tracking a would-be winner from Mattek-Sands to halt the American’s momentum. From there, the grunt got louder, the game got bigger, and the fist pump roused the Margaret Court crowd. She would lose only one more point, and was equally on fire against Belgium’s Yanina Wickmayer, whom she had never beaten.
Four wins, zero two-footing.
Simona Halep’s Olympic moment is yet to come, but at this year’s Australian Open, her newfound abandon just might be what makes the difference between silver and gold.
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