When No Points Come Easily

Despite it being very compelling to watch a player run back and forth across the baseline a few times in an effort to keep a point alive, the vast majority of players would prefer to win points more easily. Winning is criteria No. 1, as always, but second is probably winning while hurting as little as possible. There are times, however, when it’s simply not possible to get across the line first without suffering a good deal. Simona Halep’s match with Viktorija Golubic in the quarterfinals of the Melbourne WTA 250 seemed to be one of those times.

I could only watch the last five games of this match, but that half-hour showcased more beautiful rallies than many entire matches. Neither Halep nor Golubic possess overwhelming serves, and on several points it seemed that the first shot of rallies were just that — a point-starter, nothing more. Serving for the match at 15-30 late in the third set, Halep hit a second serve at 104 km/h — 65 mph — and won the point.

This is not criticism, just the opposite. The lack of free points for both players meant that extended rallies took place on practically every point. Not only that, but Golubic and Halep were defending brilliantly, managing to get back somewhat deep, penetrating shots even from way behind the baseline or from astonishingly low positions. Each player was keeping points alive as if their lives depended on it, flicking back the opponent’s laser-like backhands down the line. It’s my favorite kind of tennis to watch, a glorious antithesis to the serve-dominated men’s Wimbledon finals of the nineties (which I wasn’t alive to be disappointed at in real time).

With Halep serving at 3-4, Golubic murdered a crosscourt forehand winner off a deep backhand that didn’t look particularly attackable to go up love-30. On the next point, Halep poured herself into a backhand down the line — I gasped at the linear pace of the shot, its relentless parallel path to the sideline — but Golubic got it back deep, then feathered a drop shot winner two shots later. Halep, whose frustrated reactions during matches are well-known, didn’t react after either point, as if to say I’d like to be annoyed, but I couldn’t have done anything better there. Halep looked toast at love-40. Yet after a succession of points in which Halep’s serve had brought her little advantage, the Romanian cranked out three consecutive serve-plus-one plays (two winners, one forced error). She would escape the game after saving a fourth break point thanks to a missed second serve return from Golubic.

Halep carried her momentum from the difficult hold into the 4-all game. She struck a clean backhand passing shot down the line while on the dead run, making contact with the ball somewhere around shin level, sneaking the ball through a rope-thin lane on Golubic’s right side. She would break serve after a point in which she appeared to have been crossed up multiple times, yet got back low slice after low slice, eventually passing Golubic with another backhand.

It was that kind of match, where one player sets a standard that looks impassable until their opponent nails an even better winner on the next point. Camera angles showed the player’s heads drifting in the outrageously blue area behind the baseline. They looked lost at sea; they were actually well-armored ships firing accurately at each other, waiting to see who would sink first. Down break point in the final game, Simona Halep, who has built her empire in large part due to effective high-margin aggression — attacking with safe shots — nailed a first serve onto the sideline, then followed it up with a forehand winner that clipped both lines in the right corner. Golubic sank to her knees in despair, her hull crippled.

When Halep broke at 4-all and screamed in elation, I couldn’t help but think of 2018. That year, the Romanian went into the Australian Open as the top seed, but her path was anything but easy. She saved three match points in the third round and two more in the semifinals, both after extended deciding sets of the same kind of exhausting rallies she took part in against Golubic. Lauren Davis almost left toenails on Rod Laver Arena during her match with Halep; Kerber fell to her knees after winning a surreal 26-shot rally with an acutely angled backhand winner. It was stunning tennis that clearly required immense effort to produce. After a similarly draining final, Halep went to a nearby hospital to be treated for severe dehydration.

I don’t need much encouragement to think of Halep’s 2018 run in Melbourne; it was one of the greatest physical efforts I’ve ever seen on a tennis court. But the reason I thought of it this time was that I couldn’t remember Halep celebrating as emphatically as she did against Golubic in any of those incredible marathons, despite each being far more important than a mere 250 quarterfinal.

Halep suffered from injury in 2021, missing much of the year. Maybe she’s simply thrilled to be back, to have the confidence of scrapping through an intense match, regardless of the stakes. But as Halep celebrated and the commentators trotted out the over-overused adages about how she had trusted her game in the big moments (this diminishes the actual spectacle the way intense sleepiness dulls awareness), I wondered if the stage had to do with Halep’s excitement. Maybe she felt the pull of the tournament to which she gave so much four years ago, emerging with a silver plate as a reward after Caroline Wozniacki snatched the title away after Halep came within two games of it. This is the tournament where she has played the best while still falling short of a title. Maybe she feels, like I do, that it feels slightly wrong that she has never won the Australian Open despite her outstanding play there, that she may well have played better there than some players who do have Australian Open titles. (In 2019 and 2021, she lost to Serena Williams, and in 2020, she lost an extremely close straight-set semifinal to Garbiñe Muguruza, having multiple set points in the first set and serving for the second.)

Either way, Halep beat Golubic 6-2, 5-7, 6-4. She is back in Melbourne with her well-balanced game, some shots ready to pick up the slack if others falter. She will want to avenge her ghosts from previous editions of the Australian Open more than anyone, which is a dangerous prospect for everyone else in the field.

Halep celebrates the decisive break. Screenshot: Tennis Channel

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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