By Jane Voigt
“Who can beat Serena Williams?”
It’s a question that pundits ponder, but normally reason that if Serena’s healthy no one can touch her. They haven’t been wrong much, as Williams reaches for her 7th U. S. Open title and her record-making 23rd Grand Slam in singles.
One player that has beaten Serena is Simona Halep, during the round-robin stage of the 2015 WTA World Tour Finals in Singapore, 6-0, 6-2. To be fair, Williams turned around and trounced Halep in the final of that event, 6-3, 6-0. Nonetheless, Halep can upset the best.
As a semifinalist in 2015 at the Open, Halep may say all she thinks about is the next match but she has her eye on those ranking points, as well. So her win today over a stubbornly good Timea Babos (No. 31) was a step in the right direction toward defending those points. It was also a step in the right direction when considering Halep’s style of play. She can be hot. She can be cold. Today, though, she conquered new ground in her mind and dug deep to win.
“I was working on this,” Halep told the press later, after surmounting Babos 6-2, 2-6, 6-4. “I’m stronger mentally. I don’t give up when I’m down. Today, I had to take point by point. I don’t want to go to 1-3 in third set again.”
But that’s where she found herself. Then, at 4-games all, Babos had 3 break points. The conversion would have put her in a position to close the match, move to the fourth round of a Grand Slam for the first time, and score her first victory over a seeded player.
But Babos’s inexperience rose to the surface, as Halep clung to lead 5-4 while serving two second serves at 65 and 66 M.P.H. She had reason to bounce her racquet, knowing her serves were meek and would be pretty pickings for Serena, for example. However, Halep took the game as a positive, which is progress on the mental side of her game.
“Usually waiting for [an] opponent to make an error isn’t recommended, but it worked for Halep at end, as Babos made a slew,” Steve Tignor of tennis.com wrote on Twitter.
“Emotionally today was a little bit tough at the end,” Halep told ESPN on Arthur Ashe Stadium, immediately following her win. “I feel stronger mentally. I feel my legs. [I’m] happy to be back in the fourth round.”
Halep also had to move closer to the baseline in order to eliminate angles from Babos’s deep groundstrokes.
“I just tried to open the court more,” she told the press. “[I] was hitting strong, but too far back. So I started to hit deeper, which made the situation different.”
Halep, at five-foot-six, is one win away from a potential quarterfinal clash with Williams, who advanced today with a quick win over Johanna Larsson, 6-1, 6-0. At five-foot-ten and power packed with strengths just not part of Halep’s makeup, Williams’s advantages are profound. However, Justine Henin and Martina Hingis were also five-foot-six and won 7 Grand Slams in singles each.
When Halep, therefore, talks about feeling her legs she probably means she feels more powerful and apt to conquer players who like, and can, take balls shoulder high and swat away meek serves.
Halep is 39-13 for the year with strong performances on hard courts: quarterfinals at Indian Wells and Miami; title in Montreal; and the semifinals in Cincinnati. Nothing compares to a Grand Slam, though.
She’ll meet Carla Suarez Navarro next. Head-to-head the women are tied, 5-5. The last time they met at a hard-court event was in the quarterfinals of Indian Wells in 2015. Halep won in three. Expect their U. S. Open fourth round to go the distance, as well.