“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”
– Jean-Jacques Rousseau, French philosopher (1712-1778)
Yesterday, for the second year in a row, Simona Halep won the Mutua Madrid Open, toughing out Kristina Mladenovic. The match itself took nearly three hours. But getting to that point took even longer.
But Mladenovic wasn’t the only person Halep beat. Her toughest opponent is the one she looks at in the mirror every day. The positive Halep is a fierce competitor, a superb mover and excellent ball-striker who can smother opponents with footwork and drive the ball forcefully from all corners of the court. But the negative Halep is one exceptionally tortured soul, tearing herself apart with furious self-critiques and a downward energy spiral that leave her rigid, error-prone and seemingly unable to fight.
Halep’s fragility reached the boiling point this spring in Miami. In the quarters versus Johanna Konta, she served for the match at 5-4 in the second set, only to lose it by one of the more frustrating scores in tennis: 3-6, 7-6, 6-2. Halep’s coach, Darren Cahill, was incredibly upset by her effort in that match. As Halep told WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen in Madrid, “After Miami, he stopped working with me because he was upset about that match. It wasn’t because I lost, but because of my attitude and him feeling like I gave up. That’s why I started to work hard on my mentality, and my psychology.”
But the two were reunited in Madrid, the persistently calm Aussie once again aiding the combustible Romanian. And the final echoed Miami. Halep won the first set 7-5 – and then dropped the second in a tiebreaker. No tennis player likes to be that close to victory but then be forced into another set. 7-5, 7-6 – isn’t that nice? But 7-5, 6-7 can be a complete game-changer. Mladenovic, her form ascending in recent weeks, could well have started off the third with a cascade of winners. But instead, Halep buckled down, emphatically winning the final set, 6-2. “Today, I showed it’s a new Simo,” told Nguyen, “that I don’t give up anymore, even if I lose a close second set.”
So which Halep will we see at Roland Garros? Chained or liberated?
Read more articles by Joel Drucker