Posts Tagged ‘Halep’

Ostapenko stuns clueless Halep

June 11, 2017

In the run up to the women’s final, I remarked on a tennis forum that Jelena Ostapenko seemed to be on the sort of dream run that we haven’t seen in our sport for a long time and could win.   By beating Simona Halep in three sets in the final, Ostapenko ensured I wouldn’t have the foot in my mouth for making this ‘prediction’.   But it didn’t pan out quite the way I had expected or hoped for.

Early in the match, Ostapenko approached the net and was faced with a pass coming into her backhand.  She used both hands to steer the ball into the open court rather than make a conventional volley.  It was effective (on that occasion) but awkward.  And surely any tennis player with their wits about them would have smelt an opportunity right there.  It’s how Federer used to beat giants like Juan Martin Del Potro.  When you are not confident at the net, even wing span cannot help and Fed would draw such players into the net with a short slice/chip and pass them.  He would make sure the pass would dip, forcing the player to volley up (which is much more difficult).  Angelique Kerber used dipping passes superbly against Serena Williams at last year’s Australian Open final; Serena couldn’t volley up if her life depended on it that day.   A player who uses both hands on the volley would likely struggle to volley up.  At any rate, a gambit worth trying.

And yet, Halep didn’t try it.  Didn’t try pretty much anything other than to “play her game”, the cliched expression used these days in women’s tennis. Fans of Halep have often argued that she compensates for her diminutive stature with her brain.  But there wasn’t much evidence of this on Saturday.  Halep kept feeding Ostapenko in the strike zone and Ostapenko swung with all her might.  She committed 54 unforced errors but also made 54 winners.  Meanwhile, Halep made a measly 8 winners which negated her low unforced error count of 10.

The way to negate somebody playing a low percentage ultra aggressive game is to upset their rhythm, move them forwards and backwards rather than just laterally and give them different speeds, spins and bounces.  Things that Andy Murray did against Stan Wawrinka in the semi final on Friday.  He still lost in 5 sets but that was because Wawrinka was wise to these tactics and by the fourth set had adapted well to them.

We do not know if Ostapenko could or could not have adapted.  Because Halep didn’t try.  She didn’t make her hit low volleys or smash high, deep lobs.  Ostapenko won 7 out of 9 net points but these were juicy swing volleys. With Halep’s weak serve coming for some serious punishment at the hands of the feisty Ostapenko, her best bet was to disrupt her baseline rhythm and force her to hit shots she would rather not.

But that wouldn’t fit into Halep’s gameplan, no?  Which appeared to be to wail louder and longer after every shot than Ostapenko and pound every groundie with all her might.  This was in spite of encouraging results when she did fitfully change the play.  There was one fairly long rally (in a mostly extreme ‘first strike’ match) in the first set where Halep resorted to moonballing and it worked.  But these appeared to be more get-out-of-trouble last resort options and not a switch to a slower pace of game where perhaps she may have had more control over the proceedings.  Instead, she left the match entirely on Ostapenko’s racquet.

And full credit to Ostapenko, she took it.  She persisted with her incredibly simple gameplan of hit and hit harder and did not flinch even when she was trailing by a set and three games. Had she, with an eye on the big prize, second-guessed herself, Halep may well have stolen it from her. But she concluded in pretty much the same emphatic, albeit one dimensional, fashion that she started the match.  She broke Halep in the first game of the match and did so in the final game as well to win the trophy.  And, in her own words, Halep was a mere spectator in the end.

Watch out for Belinda Bencic

August 18, 2015

Belinda Bencic, an 18 year old Swiss player, won the Toronto WTA Premier title (equivalent of ATP 1000) on Sunday, beating Simona Halep who retired even as she was falling apart in the decider.  Bencic also beat Serena Williams, Ana Ivanovic, Sabine Lisicki, Caroline Wozniacki and Eugenie Bouchard en route.   The significance of this event needs to be brought home tellingly.

I am not a statistician or tennis trivia expert.  But if memory serves me right, Bencic is the youngest winner of a Premier level title since Maria Sharapova’s Tokyo win in 2005 (she was 17).  The only other 18 year old winner of a Premier level title since then was Ivanovic, who also won the Canadian Open in 2006, beating Martina Hingis in an amazing coincidence.  But if we reckon by months, Bencic is even younger than Ivanovic.

Yes, 10 years.  It’s been that long.  Women’s tennis was once known for churning out precocious teens who struck gold very early into their careers, the Swiss Miss Hingis being one such herself.  But with WTA introducing age eligibility rules and the game itself becoming slower and more physical, favouring tall, well built players on the WTA, we haven’t had any teens breaking through so early to win a Premier Level Title, let alone a Slam.  Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka, Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep had all breached 20 when they won their first Premier Level title.  By contrast, Bencic has broken through earlier.  Bencic also made it through a very tough draw to get there and that she should achieve this in her maiden Premier title win is an incredible achievement.

So what accounts for her swift rise to success at the top most level of women’s tennis?  What makes Bencic special?

Basically, the things that made Hingis special, with significantly less finesse.  Bencic’s game looks innocuous on the surface and if you were to watch her now for the first time after she’s created a splash, you would be forgiven for wondering what the fuss is all about.  Her serve is not a great threat and the second delivery is already a liability (shades of Hingis again).  Her groundstrokes are somewhat underpowered and she’s also not the quickest mover on court.  But it’s the way she reads the game that compensates for all these problems.  Observe carefully and you will find Bencic improvising incredibly smart plays out of nowhere to come out on top of baseline exchanges with her opponents.  And while her volleys are definitely not Hingis class, as I already alluded to, she too has a great sense of when to come in and sniffs opportunities where most other players on the tour would prefer to hang back.  Maybe a serve volleyer like Kirsten Flipkens might come in on such occasions, but you get the picture.  And Bencic is just 18, so the fact that she already plays this interesting, hybrid game of baseline and all court strategies must itself come as a surprise to opponents.  She’s also held tough through adversity, not throwing in the towel after a flurry of double faults and fighting on to win.

With the Toronto triumph, Bencic has risen to no.12 in the rankings.  She has considerable upside at the Cincinnati event too where she lost her opening game last year.  This year, in the first round she is slated to play Angelique Kerber who could prove a tough nut to crack.   But Bencic is riding high on confidence after her fabulous winning streak in Montreal and might just put it past Kerber at Cincy.  The fast paced surface should suit a smart counterpuncher like Bencic very well too.  At the US Open, she has quarter final points to defend.  Hopefully, she will go further than that and break into the top 10 of WTA.

It is as yet far too early to tell how good a player Bencic will turn out to be.  There have been players before who shone briefly like a meteorite and just as suddenly disappeared from top flight tennis.  Last year’s hot new talent Bouchard herself is Exhibit A of said phenomenon, currently languishing at no.25, having got as far as no.5 last year.  But early indications of Bencic are very promising.  It does look like WTA has a new star, one who will hopefully entertain connoisseurs and recreational players just as much as casual fans.  Go Bencic!

Halep and Bouchard’s contrasting paths to ignominy

July 5, 2015

Eugenie Bouchard, last year’s Wimbledon finalist, and Simona Halep, the semi finalist who lost to Bouchard in said event, were both knocked out in the first round of this year’s Wimbledon.  Both of last year’s rising stars have had a disastrous last few months but their route to ignominy couldn’t have been more different.

After Bouchard got beaten soundly by Petra Kvitova in last year’s Wimbledon final, I wrote about how she had paid the price for hubris that was not backed by enough game to beat a player like Kvitova.  The very fact that I am able to write about how she has fared in this year’s tournament in the first weekend of Wimbledon speaks volumes.  I had hoped in last year’s write up that she would not repeat Martina Hingis’s mistakes and learn quickly.  Yes, she hasn’t.  She has done much worse.  Hingis at least had/has a great tennis mind and bona fide strokemaking ability; she has found a second wind in doubles partnering Sania Mirza.

It is becoming increasingly hard to believe that Bouchard has either great tennis IQ or great shots.  Her conqueror at Wimbledon does seem to lack the former a lot of times and lost to the crafty Jelena Jankovic yesterday.  That’s what separates the stunningly talented Kvitova from the legend that is Serena Williams, who grits through bad patches and uses her underrated tennis mind to find a way to win. You can get by with one of either qualities to some extent in tennis but not without both.  It also seems that even something as fundamental as adequate transfer of weight has not been fixed in Bouchard’s technique.  With the result that after making the Australian Open quarterfinals yet again (where Sharapova drubbed her), Bouchard has struggled to just win matches…against any player on the WTA tour.

Her now much disliked smugness was on evidence again during Canada’s Fed Cup tie against Romania.  Her Highness expressed her unwilingness to shake hands with her opponent prior to the match, calling it ‘lame’.  Shortly thereafter she limped out lamely, losing both of her singles matches in a humiliating fashion.  From that point on, her slump just plummeted to new depths with a first round exit at Wimbledon capping her woes.  Could it get worse for Bouchard from here?  Who knows.  A 4th round appearance at US Open and finals at Wuhan may still prove too much to defend for her, with the result that she may lose yet more points.  While Bouchard has made a reference to learning a lot through this experience, it is not clear whether she is simply referring to the fact that there would be reversals in a tennis career or to the fact that much needs to be done for her to remain in the top 20 on a consistent basis.  It is worth remembering that she referred to the Wimbledon final drubbing as a good learning experience with evident sheepishness and yet little signs of said learning have been evident a year on.

What of Halep?  She too reached the quarter finals of the Australian Open, where another powerful Russian, Ekaterina Makarova, dislodged her with ease.  But after a good showing in the American slow hard court stretch, Halep has faltered with early exits at both French Open and Wimbledon.

If Bouchard reeked of false swagger and a possibly deluded bravado, Halep seems to struggle to cope with the weight of expectations.  She made a reference to it as early as the US Open last year, where veteran Mirjana Lucic-Baroni beat her.  Since then, it’s not clear if she has made much progress in handling nerves.  Considering that she was a finalist at the French Open last year (apart from making the semis at Wimbledon),  it would only appear that she has regressed further in this regard.

Halep, like Bouchard, is grossly underpowered in the “Strong is Beautiful” era of women’s tennis.  Like Bouchard, she needs to use her brains to select her shots intelligently and scramble to win, as she cannot blow her opponents off the court.  But what is noticeable even in Halep’s wins is her shot selection and court positioning can go completely awry in patches (which is why she often wins in three sets rather than just two).  Many a time, I have noticed her getting caught mid court for no apparent reason and losing the point.  For a petite player like Halep, such lapses can be costly and combined with what appears to be timidness in the face of pressure, it’s going to be one hell of a monkey to get off her back.  The saving grace is unlike Bouchard, she doesn’t seem to have any serious problems with her technique.  It’s just that she can’t possibly hit the ball much harder even if she tried.

Signing off, the media, including commentators who have played the game, made references to attitude-related aspects of Bouchard and Halep in talking them up.  With Bouchard, it was her mental strength and immense self belief and with Halep, it was her feline-like demeanour (which apparently is evidence of aggression).  The problem is an appearance of mental strength or aggression cannot win matches on a tennis court.  I would be the last person to downplay the importance of the mental side of the game, especially at the highest level where thin margins separate winners from losers.

But it is no substitute for a bare minimum level of ‘game’.  Shots struck with a certain amount of power and produced with precision, aiming for the lines, with consistency.  Much has been written about Sharapova’s grit and intensity too, but she basically has two amazing shots that she can rely on to generate winners.  The backhand cross court and the off forehand. She can aim for the corners with these shots relentlessly to break down the opponent.   This is how she’s got to 5 slams, not because she clenches her fist ever so tightly between points or because, ahem, she is easy on the eye.

Hollow, superficial contextualisation of tennis is understandable from media pundits since they seemingly know no better.  But at least former players owe it to us to make intelligent, objective analysis of the game instead of making an utter mockery of women’s tennis by refusing to engage with it deeply.  Whatever Halep or Bouchard may or may not have learnt from their terrible slump, I hope it has also been a learning experience for the commentators.  Else, we are probably better off without having any commentary at all.


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