What is the right degree of aggression? Go too close to the lines or hit too hard and you might miss; hit too softly and the ball will be thwacked past you. Where’s the happy medium?
The answer lies somewhere between Simona Halep and Jelena Ostapenko. Halep, despite being offensively minded, lacks easy power, so when she plays someone with the same mindset and the game to match, she doesn’t have much choice but to take the defensive role. And her opponent today, Ostapenko, has all the power in the world. Like, if you hit a shot to Ostapenko that is the slightest bit too slow, she will crush a winner, and it will look demoralizingly easy. The problem is, Ostapenko is wild — when you massacre every ball, you will miss a lot. The court’s not that big.
Halep-Ostapenko matches, then, tend to be characterized by the former keeping the ball in play for as long as possible, trying to elicit an error from the latter. If Ostapenko is having a good accuracy day, there’s not much Halep can do in the face of the barrage. But if she isn’t, Halep can go into error-free mode and let Ostapenko self-destruct.
Option two tends to happen more often than option one, in the grand scheme of things. Focusing power, especially as much as Ostapenko has, is hard. Halep has had a more successful career than Ostapenko despite having to work harder to win points. She’s way more consistent, and reliability pays in tennis.
So when Halep takes the court against Ostapenko, she does have reason to be confident. But I can’t shake the thought that there’s an air of uneasiness around her when the two play. There’s the lingering knowledge that if Ostapenko has a really good day, Halep is probably toast, since she can’t boss Ostapenko around, only react to her more powerful shots. That’s not the most encouraging information. What must Halep’s game plan look like? Serve well, get good depth, run everything down…oh, and hope to God that the woman on the other side of the net doesn’t peak. As a professional tennis player — a two-time major champion and former world No. 1 at that — this can’t be easy to deal with.
Halep and Ostapenko clashed in the Dubai semifinal today. Halep won the first set 6-2. In the sixth game, there was a moment when she had two unforced errors and Ostapenko had 15. Even then, the match felt a bit precarious to me. Ostapenko, due to her far superior power, basically got to decide how points ended — sure, she missed a lot, but had I been writing a live report, I’d have been typing either “Ostapenko misses” or “Ostapenko hits a winner” after nearly every point. (Halep hit just eight total winners during the match, five of which were aces.) Even if things aren’t going your way, having that level of control on a match has to be reassuring.
The classic Ostapenko-Halep match (though they’ve only played three times, including today) is the 2017 Roland-Garros final. For a set and a half, Halep had control of proceedings. After 59 minutes, Ostapenko trailed 4-6, 0-3, ad-out. If the match wasn’t already over, it would have been had she lost the next point. Instead, she destroyed a forehand winner down the line, while on the run. From there, she simply blasted away, aiming for the corners in a stunningly brave performance. Halep was up a break in the third set, but was never in the driver’s seat — per Tennis Abstract, Ostapenko hit 50 winners (not including aces) and Halep hit 8. There’s been some controversy surrounding Ostapenko’s quotes this week, which included “she [Halep] can’t handle my pace.” When the pace lands between the lines of the court, this is true.
Ostapenko got her act together in the second set of the Dubai semifinal. Halep did well to even the set after falling behind 3-0, then resisted pressure admirably to save set point to get to a tiebreak. Halep had the momentum and the lead; there was every reason to think she would close out the match. Instead, Ostapenko stumbled upon a laser-like level of accuracy, blasted a few winners, and whitewashed the tiebreak 7-0.
Seven-zero. Halep hadn’t done anything wrong, exactly, Ostapenko had just started doing everything right. When that happens, a match can slip past in a hurry. Ostapenko broke Halep twice to open the third set, going up 3-0 in nine minutes.
Ostapenko doesn’t often react wildly to her successes, which must make her a freaking intimidating opponent. On the one hand, Ostapenko is disappointed when she isn’t playing well, which is often. But when she is — and for her, that means blasting unreturnable bullets from both wings — it’s terrifying. This blinding level of play might be very difficult to achieve, but it is what she expects of herself.
Halep is more susceptible to losing to a redlining opponent; Ostapenko is only susceptible to herself. In this matchup, that tends to favor Ostapenko, who’s now won two of their three battles. Overall, though, Halep has had the better career. She’s won two majors to Ostapenko’s one. She’s been world number one; Ostapenko has “only” been as high as #5. Halep is a perennial contender at majors; Ostapenko has lost in the early rounds several times. All things considered, Ostapenko’s game is a bit too risky — dominant as she is when at her best, she’s not at her best that often. Halep’s peak level might be less godlike, but it’s easier for her to achieve.
High-margin aggression is the happy medium in tennis, but low-margin aggression (when it works) is the most difficult tennis to play against. Not a lot you can do when shots are flying into the corners of the court at high speeds. The high risk of the strategy is enough to dissuade most from trying it, especially when the pressure’s on. The best players of all time are living proof that sustainability is crucial, and low-margin aggression is anything but.
All that said, Ostapenko won the third set of today’s Dubai semifinal 6-0 in barely over twenty minutes against one of the best players and defenders in the world. Which feels like a big deal.
2 thoughts on “Degrees of Aggression”
Nice piece. I do have one counterpoint: The 2019 Wimbledon final, when Halep’s level was whatever is two levels above godlike.
Thanks, Reid! And that is a fantastic counterpoint. Three unforced errors in two sets in a major final against Serena Williams should mean automatic Hall of Fame entry.