It’s not uncommon for young players to land into the minds of people with an upset over a top player, or a deep run into a big player. Simona Halep hasn’t just done this, she’s won four tournaments in a three month span – one on grass, two on clay, and one on hard courts in that order. At only 5’6, it would be easy to talk dismissively about the 21 year old Romanian. However, Simona does things few players her size have ever done.
This post draws directly on her dominant win over Petra Kvitova in the New Haven Open final, but also draws upon other times I have seen her play, particularly in her clay wins after Wimbledon. (This uses the template for tactically approaching a player from my Beginner’s Guide to Tactics as seen above.)
1. Pick A Player Simona Halep
2. Attacking a Wing
A player’s decision or habit to attack a certain wing of their opponent is typically the easiest tactical pattern to notice. Halep did not do a ton of that in her match versus Kvitova as she really didn’t need to.
3. Unforced Errors
All players give away free points. It’s important to look at what patterns of play lead to these sorts of errors, and how players give away free points. Simona Halep made all of four unforced errors in the entire match. In a Premier final. Versus a top 10 player. Simply not gifting away a ton of points greatly increases anyone’s chance in a match, and largely eliminates a lot of luck in close games or sets.
Petra Kvitova certainly made her share of unforced errors, which helped. But this wasn’t Simona simply looping the ball into play and waiting for Petra to implode – she was firmly in control of the match, and with an eye on my Twitter timeline during the match, most people agreed.
4. Creation and Use of Space
This is the most abstract point of the 10 that I have made, but is the one that is most key to Simona’s success.
Players will often mention “patterns of play”. These are essentially templates in a player’s brain as to where they want to hit the ball – an idea of how to control a point regardless of opponent, after years of playing the sport. Simona largely lacked any sort of “pattern of play” while playing Kvitova, and in the most incredible way.
Halep’s recognition and anticipation of both the weight/spin and placement of Kvitova’s shots (and her opponents in general) is simply incredible. This means several things that I’ll talk about later, but most importantly, it gives her impeccable timing. Taking shots down the line is incredibly difficult for any player, let alone a player 5’6. It is the highest part of the net, and usually means changing the direction of the ball. Halep is able to pull off both forehands and backhands down the line in incredible fashion.
Simona is an incredibly quick player which allows her to make small adjustments before setting up to hit the ball. She does an excellent job of keeping the racquet head out in front of her while going down the line, particularly on the backhand side (I am largely reminded of Djokovic).
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Simona isn’t looking to rip massive down the line winners. Playing against someone with below average movement like Kvitova, Halep knew that simply getting the ball into these aggressive spots was going to be enough for her to eventually win the point. It didn’t have to be a winner. Even if Kvitova got to the ball, she was still in control of the point, and could confidently finish them off.
5. Pace of Shot
At 5’6, one wouldn’t expect the young Romanian to rip the ball, and she doesn’t. However, her compact swing and strong wrists allow her to effectively counterpunch pace in a way that reminds me of Zheng Jie, particularly on the backhand side. Which leads us to…
As mentioned before, Halep does a fantastic job of recognizing the type of shot headed her way. This doesn’t just mean that she can play great defense, it means that she can respond with the appropriate shot (a reason her unforced error tally was so low). She counterpunched big Kvitova forehands incredibly well. She didn’t try to hit sizzling winners off of them, she simply redirected the pace and kept the ball deep, hopefully in the general area of where Kvitova wasn’t. This worked incredibly well. With solid depth, Halep could get a weaker response and then really go to work.
This wasn’t too much of an issue either way, though I could see high bouncing hard courts eventually becoming a problem for Halep with her height. Kvitova isn’t one for much spin or a ton of height over the net, so Halep wasn’t forced to reach for anything too wild and spinning, for example.
Halep does a great job of mixing things up, and not in an Aga Radwanska type of way. She can put fantastic spin on the ball when necessary, and as a smaller player, is sometimes necessary to play a deep, defensive shot to get a foot hold back in the rally and really buy some time. Again, incredible instincts.
Quite obviously not a massive weapon for a player of her height, but her placement of serves is pretty excellent.
10. Return of Serve
If you don’t have the biggest serve ever, you need to make up for it by finding ways of breaking your opponent. Those incredible instincts go a long way on the return for Halep. Her return points off of second serve returns were consistently fantastic through out the tournament. She knows how to take control of points early by once again hitting with fantastic depth, and not necessarily going for massive winners.
Final thoughts: I’ve half jokingly said on Twitter that Simona Halep will be the Roland Garros champion in 2015, but there is some serious truth to that. Simona absolutely dominants lesser opponents on clay. She gets even more time to react and can use her excellent wrist strength and instincts to put the ball into commanding areas with incredible consistency. She’s also afforded more crafty options like slicing and drop shotting, something she isn’t afraid to do on clay either.
By the end of the year, Halep will be 22 and likely finish ranked inside the top 20, or close to it. Due to tough draws this year, she is barely defending any grand slam points next year, and with a good seeding, has a real chance to make noise in Australia and of course in the clay season. In my opinion, it’s only a matter of time before Halep closes in on the top 10, and could ultimately represent a new style of play in women’s tennis – one that is neither the extreme of “big babe” tennis nor the defensive or crafty approaches of players like Errani and Radwanska. Watch out.