Those Who Fight Win

By Jane Voigt

June 7, 2017 — Novak Djokovic was on top of the world. He’d just won The French Open for the first time; and, as an added dollop of satisfaction, he’d earned a career Grand Slam. Such were the heights he scaled last year. Today, at the same tournament, Djokovic crashed out. 

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“This is a whole new situation for me, not winning a big tournament for eight or nine months,” Djokovic said, according to bbc.com. “This hasn’t happened in a while."

Not only did he lose to Dominic Thiem, 7-6(5), 6-3, 6-0, but he admitted defeat, at least to himself, in the first set.

“I think it was decided in the first set,” Djokovic said. “Nothing was going my way. Not close to playing my best. He was too strong. He deserved to win."

Contrast that attitude, disparaging tone and result with Simona Halep, who was by all counts, predictions and stats, out of the match in the opening set — down 0-5 — but forged the biggest comeback win of her career.

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Simona Halep in Indian Wells, Calif., where in 2015 she won the title.
Photo credit Pablo Sanfrancisco tennisclix.com.

“I don’t know how I came back,” Halep said, the bbc.com reported, after winning 12 of the last 13 games of the quarterfinal against Elina Svitolina. “She was playing tough, hard and strong. Maybe I was a little lucky, but I didn’t give up.”

Luck did play a roll in Halep’s improbable victory, 3-6, 7-6(5), 6-0. 

For example, she won the tiebreak when the last shot clipped the net cord and dribbled over. But, let’s be real, she began to up her game at the end of the opening set. Just look where she was, down 0-5. Her recovery had little to do with luck. Instead, Halep fought her biggest battle … herself. Her reward … a semifinal berth where she’ll meet first-time Roland-Garros semifinalist, Karolina Pliskova (No. 2).

This compete turnaround came from the woman who’s attitude was so negative that her coach, Darin Cahill, left her high and dry in Miami. Halep had stunk up the court in her loss to Johanna Konta, popping her racquet off the court, slapping away at her thighs, dropping her head as if she was facing certain death. Cahill had had enough. If Halep wasn’t in for the fight, he wasn’t about to waste his time. Halep came around after that, expressing how ashamed she felt about her behavior. That’s when Cahill signed on, again. Their trust has grown.

“How proud must Coach Cahill be at this moment,” Mary Carillo said, calling the match for Tennis Channel. “We were not seeing these efforts from Simona Halep before.”

Unlike Djokovic, Halep’s reversal of fortune was a choice. 

“I tried,” Djokovic said, as if attempting to escape the guilt and shame of his performance. “But I lost a crucial break at the start of the second set.”

This from the man who in 2015 won 11 titles, including the ATP Finals, the U.S. Open, and Wimbledon, plus Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo and Rome. This from the man who in 2016 won the Australian Open, The French Open, Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and the Canadian Open. This from the man who had a 7-0 head-to-head match record with Thiem, who Djokovic beat last year in the semifinals of Paris, Thiem winning 7 games total that day. 

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Novak Djokovic. Photo credit Leslie Billman tennisclix.com.

Yet today he failed to get past the last eight players in Paris for the first time since 2010. And that bagel in the third was his first since the 2005 U. S. Open.

“All the top players have gone through that and I guess I have to learn lessons and figure how to get through,” Djokovic lamented. 

“Djokovic’s increasingly resigned air was startling,” wrote rolandgarros.com. “And his capitulation in the 20-minute [third] set positively disturbing."

He should take a look at Halep’s match. She never gave up. She won five games in a row. She went bigger and bolder with her offense as she pumped up her defense. Once, on the full stretch to her forehand she managed to find the outside of the ball and smack a winner down the line.

“It’s a completely different match,” Carillo exclaimed, as crowds literally went crazy … See-mo-na … See-mo-na … 

Svitolina was indeed broken. Halep had conquered her opponent’s will and infested her mind with negativity, as if their roles had reversed. The third set was over in 20 minutes, just like Djokovic’s final set against Thiem. 

“Djokovic looked punch drunk in the third set,” Russell Fuller, the BBC tennis correspondent, wrote. “He won only eight points. As a result he could drop to as low as number four in the world and will definitely find himself outside the world’s top two for the first time since March, 2011."

Dominic Thiem (No. 6) now finds himself at the same junction as last year, the semifinals. Instead of Djokovic, he’ll face Rafael Nadal who, today, defeated Pablo Carreno Busta (No. 20), 6-2, 2-0, retired. 

Thiem was the only player to beat Nadal on clay this season, in the quarterfinals of Madrid. So the clash, set for Friday, has certainly grabbed Nadal’s attention. 

“Thiem is a very good player,” Nadal said, firstpost.com reported. “He’s very powerful from both sides - forehand, backhand, serve. He has a huge potential to tap and doesn’t give much options. In Rome, he put me in difficult positions. It was not a good day for me." 

Halep will face Karolina Pliskova on Thursday. The tall Czech hasn’t quite come to terms with her progression to the semifinals. She has said repeatedly that clay is her worse surface. Yet she is one win away from the final and her first Grand Slam title, plus the number-one ranking. She took out the last hope for a French Open winner, Caroline Garcia, 7-6(3), 6-4, today. 

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Karolina Pliskova, during the 2016 Western & Southern Open.
Photo credit Leslie Billman tennisclix.com.

“Before this tournament I was still struggling on clay,” Pliskova said, rolandgarros.com reported. “I didn’t have my weapons on my side and the movement was terrible. I don’t think it’s better, but somehow I’m winning. I’m just happy that I’m there now. I think it’s more belief. I believe I can go far.”

Maybe that’s what Djokovic needs … more belief. Or maybe he just needs to accept himself, lament the loss of his team (his choice), and spend some time with his family. When asked if he’d take a break he said, “Trust me, I’m thinking about many things, especially in the last couple months. I’m just trying to sense what’s the best thing for me now.” 

© Jane Voigt Tennis 2013