Sports function best in a state of hegemony. Absolute parity in sports makes it hard for fans to get behind a team (or against one), and total dominance has a way of sucking the air out of the room. Rather, that state of having robust rivalries between a few dominant players or teams seems to be the magic spot — engaging fans into their own proxy rivalries and inspiring hundreds of hours of debate.
Simona Halep has not been a dominant player over her career. That isn’t to say that she hasn’t achieved a great deal so far. But she has, for better or worse, been known as much for her ability to deal with loss, as for her ability to finally put together a winning Slam run this year in Paris. She fits the mold more of her former peers as Slam-less Number Ones, Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Jankovic. While Halep’s game is decidedly more aggressive than theirs, there’s a sense that she could be swept away by a more dominant player, like Serena Williams or Victoria Azarenka.
Yet, while we have all been looking at what she hasn’t done, Halep has put together an impressive run — appearing in three out of the last six Grand Slam finals, and eleven tournament finals overall since May 2017. Success isn’t a straight line — not even for the dominant, and it hasn’t been for Halep. Yet, it looked like she was going to have an easier go of it on Sunday in Cincinnati — winning the first set easily, and then earned her first match point on Kiki Bertens’ serve late in the second. Even when the second set reached a tiebreak, it seemed that Halep would find a way to win, especially when she earned another match point at 6-5. But it wasn’t to be, Bertens hung with Halep, and took the second set.
Kiki Bertens has been the tour’s biggest giant killer this year, beating Venus Williams and Karolina Pliskova en route to the Wimbledon quarterfinals. This week in Cincinnati, she’s continued her spree, with two more top 10 wins over Petra Kvitova and Elena Svitolina (three wins if you count Caroline Wozniacki’s retirement after losing the first set). And, after saving two match points, Bertens proved the steadier of the two in the final set — breaking Halep’s serve three times, while holding her own serve all but once. In a sport that sometimes doesn’t reward all of its skilled practitioners with a trophy, Bertens managed to win her first big one by taking out the current world number one.
It’s easy to explain this one away by citing Halep’s visible fatigue after a long, rainy two weeks, or noting that she hasn’t had a great record in all of the finals she has reached. But perhaps the answer is that not all success in sports is a lasting, hegemonic kind. There’s a lesson in this, to appreciate the success that does come, even if it isn’t repeated or constant. But it also leaves the question open whether it will be, for either Simona Halep or Kiki Bertens.