As I watch today’s semifinals, and Jo Konta’s ongoing campaign to be the first British woman to win the Wimbledon single’s title since Virginia Wade’s centennial effort, I can’t help but think of the woman she defeated to get here. Most of the coverage of Jo Konta’s quarterfinal win over Simona Halep will note the significance of Jo’s run to the final, and her contribution to British tennis, and those who were watching may walk away remembering Konta’s excellent serving in the first set. But a closer look at the match shows one where many of Konta’s statistics — service percentage, winners, errors etc. actually decreased during the sets she won, as compared to the first set, which she lost. Conversely, Halep’s stats often seem to improve as the match continued. Yet, at the end of the day, it was Konta who was advancing — preventing Halep from attaining the number one ranking, and from taking another shot at a Slam title in a year where her chances looked pretty good.
This is an interesting crossroads for Halep. There’s no doubt that she has the ability to do well in tournaments, but she simply has failed to compete sufficiently to close out matches for most of this year, most notably last month at the Roland Garros final. It’s been frequently reported that coach Darren Cahill actually left Team Halep earlier this year after he felt that Halep gave up in the Miami final against Konta earlier this year. But Monday’s match felt less like giving up and more like failure to rise to the occasion.
Some might say that this type of competitive mettle can’t be taught — that champions are a different breed. But one need look no further than Konta herself to see that steely resolve can be learned, even by players who might deem themselves less mentally tough than their peers. For Konta, this improved ability to hang in tough matches has paid significant dividends — with a fast rising ranking, and a chance to make history this week. For Halep, on the other hand, it’s another session at the drawing board. What came easier to her as an unheralded underdog — i.e. putting it all on the line to slay the giants — is clearly a much harder task as she becomes the one to beat, or at least we notice the failures more than we used to. I’m not sure that Cahill’s tough love approach from Miami will work again — this time Simona’s got to find it on her own.
It’s a hard thing to say but Simona sometimes seems almost satisfied with losing. I thought her reaction to her loss in Paris was telling – her runner-up speech got more plaudits than her performance and Cahill’s public comment on Twitter was strange to say the least: ‘Big Hugs’ – really. A bit too Pollyanna. And far too much on-court coaching – that should stop now. Champions don’t need coaching during matches. Can turn into ‘learned helplessness’.
Simona needs to beef up her serve, use more of the shots we know she’s got, get off the baseline from time to time, do something about her finishing – that’s let her down many times. Don’t bother about a public image – maybe cut down the social media a bit. That stuff doesn’t matter.
Maybe she needs a couple more years or so to mature as a person – and learn that her personality on court may be a little different than her naturally private character, and that’s no bad thing. Nice doesn’t always win matches and ultimately that’s what she’s there for.
To follow up the theme of competitive ‘mettle’ – Simona could practise some techniques of psychological intimidation – she’s not going to threaten anyone sizewise but she can develop that way of looking at her opponent which says ‘what are you doing on the same court with me ?’. And struttung around. (Not chucking racquets though.)
The greatest of past glarers was BJK, no physical giant either but such was her mental dominance that players avoided catching her eye during matches. Chris Evert was pretty good too, although in a less obvious way.
Didn’t see much ‘steely resolve’ in Konta yesterday. Being ‘Wimbledon’s darling’ can turn you into a marshmallow.
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