SI-MO-NA…UN-BE-LIEV-A-BLE (Occasional Sports Moment #36)

Remember folks, you can always come here for the news first. Today, Simona Halep’s “mini-revolution” reached a peak that stunned even me.

I’ve seen Serena Williams play at least four hundred tennis matches. I’ve seen her lose occasionally, even be blown out occasionally (once by Simona Halep…the only time in ten previous meetings Halep had beaten her**). The 2019 Wimbledon final played today, which Halep won 6-2, 6-2, was the first time I felt her will break–saw her simply reach a point where it was palpable that she no longer believed she could win.

All it took was Halep playing the finest match I’ve ever seen on a big stage. She made only three unforced errors (a record for a major final and almost unthinkable against a hard-hitting all-time power player on grass…and double again for a player who comes from a tiny country that doesn’t have a single grass court to train on). She out-served the greatest server in the history of the women’s game (and the greatest clutch server in the history of the game, period), despite possessing only a solid serve herself. And, most of all, she used the foot-speed which, among other things, I wrote about here, to shrink the court to the size of a postage stamp.

Serena has a pattern so well-known even tennis commentators, the least observant people on Planet Earth, have noticed it and marked it down. Get her down and she starts to hit big, produce winners, and let loose long primal screams that allow her to dominate the available space psychically as well as physically. If, by chance, her big shots miss and she gets in real trouble, she dials it back, plays safely down the middle with depth and precision and hangs in enough rallies to get her feet back under her.

She tried both tactics today…only instead of missing big shots, those big shots–the ones that, time and again, have announced Serena Has Arrived–came back.

With interest.

Time and again.

And dialing it back (which Serena admitted in her post match press conference she tried as well) is never going to be a tactic that works against a red-hot Simona Halep.

One of the announcers said it must feel like Serena was “playing two Simonas.”

That’s certainly what it felt like watching.

Who knows. Maybe it isn’t a “mini” revolution after all.

Maybe it’s like “minor” genius and there really is no such thing.

Judge for yourself:

**Quote of the tournament from Halep, when asked how she had prepared herself mentally for the match: “I thought about the time I beat her…The other nine times didn’t count.”)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

Long may she run.

(For additional insight into Halep’s physical and spiritual journey, here’s my favorite tennis blogger on today’s match.)

SIMONA HALEP’S MINI-REVOLUTION (Occasional Sports Moment #35)

The latest revolution in women’s sports (or maybe just sports–I don’t keep up like I used to), came full circle today when Romania’s 26-year-old Simona Halep won the French Open, her first “major” title after three excruciating finals losses since 2014.

The revolution has gone unnoticed by the tennis media, which makes a specialty of not noticing things, and the general sports media, which depends on John McEnroe to tell them what’s important in tennis the way rock critics depend on Robert Christgau to tell them what’s important in country music. If the guru hasn’t spoken, it hasn’t happened.

But, acknowledged or not, Simona Halep’s revolution has happened.

Five years ago, when she decided that running the baseline and playing like a backboard wasn’t enough, she had a breakout year, winning six tournaments.

People took notice, of course. They even commented on her change in attitude–backboard no more, she had become a true counterpuncher.

For those who don’t know, the history of tennis consists mainly of backboards, counterpunchers and attackers. Attackers used to serve and volley. Now they, too, play at the baseline and simply use modern racket technology (which Jimmy Connors once compared to giving major league hitters aluminum bats) to blast the ball by their opponent at the first opportunity.

Backboards have rarely won big, though they’ve often been competitive. They excel at “not losing”–or, as I like to say, “barely losing.”

As of five years ago, it was an open question whether true counterpunching–using angles, endurance, footspeed, redirection, guile, to do what slugging the ball cannot–would ever gain a real foothold again.

Then Halep’s big year happened and she started talking about “being aggressive.”

Before too long, players some of us had been begging forever and a day to be “aggressive” actually took notes: Result? Several of them upped their games and went on to win the major championships they had been seeking for years–Angie Kerber (twice)*, Caroline Wozniacki, Sloane Stephens.

The one who didn’t win until today was Simona Halep. Worse, Halep had committed the unforgivable sin of raising the tennis intelligentsia‘s hopes. They (the dread “They”) liked her. And she raised the question: Could a truly stylish, light-footed player without unworldly power actually become not merely a now-and-again contender but a real force out there?

Well, yes and no. Halep won a lot of tournaments, consistently contended at majors, even rose to #1 in the rankings. But she fell short in major finals. And those defeats were agonizing–finals of the French in 2014 and 2017, the final in Australia early this year, all in three close sets where, at some point, she held a late lead.

And because she had let the side down–the side that never expected much from her in the first place and were therefore all the more “disappointed” when she raised what seemed to have become false hopes–everything was questioned.

Her head. Her heart. Her will.

Why couldn’t she just do it?

The notion that what she was trying to do–trying to build, if you will, brick by brick–might be the least bit difficult was never once acknowledged.

To her credit she took it. She questioned herself in public. Blamed no one else. She was open about what she was working on, both mentally and physically. If she got mad on the court it was only at herself. She took greatest-ever counterpuncher Chris Evert’s dictum to heart: It’s not the coach. It’s not your box. It’s not the racquet. It’s you.

She worked, then. And she took the blows.

And she endured.

She even gave great press conferences–So I lost three times until now, and nobody died.**

Today she triumphed. Personally, yes. But also the revolution she will never get credit for. As of now, five of the last ten major winners on the women’s side won playing Simona Halep’s game rather than Martina’s or Steffi’s or Serena’s or (given changes in racquet and surface technology) even Evert’s. Often as not, as it was today, they beat someone else playing the same game in the finals.

If I were to compare Halep’s revolution to anything in recent sport it would be Steph Curry’s concurrent redefinition of the professional basketball court into a space where an additional two hundred square feet have to be defended. Like Curry, Halep, ballet dancing in the land of the giants, gets by on speed and guile, being stronger than she looks–and defying expectations.

And, as with Curry (and, once upon a time, Chris Evert), they were the most demanding expectations of all–what everybody else believed was impossible.

She reached the pinnacle today.

Here’s to a long run. Let the chants keep ringing out, all over the tennis world:

“SI-MO-NA!”

*Now three times. Kerber has since added a WImbledon title.

**Along the way, she also inspired. As my favorite tennis blogger, Diane Dees, who hosts the great Women Who Serve site, noted today, we have never seen a female athlete attract and hold a fan base that follows her around the world, through thick and thin, and constantly chants her name during competition….until now.

LIGHT OF FOOT, LIGHT OF HEART (Maria Bueno, R.I.P.)

Brazil’s Maria Bueno played her competitive tennis career from 1958 to 1968, retiring in her late twenties and just missing the “Open” era. She won Wimbledon three times and the U.S. Championship four times, but just missed the level of acclaim (and money) that would have come even a few years later as women’s tennis entered the mainstream.

There is little footage of her playing career available on YouTube, but this interview with CNN, on the eve of the Brazil Olympics in 2016, gives a good indication of why she was the watchword for grace–on and off the court–to several generations of tennis addicts.¬†Well worth five minutes of your time...especially if you care to be reminded that nothing springs from a vacuum. (On leaving Brazil for the European circuit at eighteen: “They bought me a ticket. One way ticket. ‘Come back when you can.'”)

There’s no good time for a good person to leave our company. But she might be smiling tonight somewhere, on the eve of a French Open women’s final that–in this age of huge-hitting Amazons–will feature two gliders (Romania’s Simona Halep and the American Sloane Stephens).

Proof, perhaps, that some forms of grace never really go out of style, assault them though we will.

PERCEPTION, THE GREAT DECEIVER (Occasional Sports’ Moment: #30)

Some time in the past couple of years, someone ( I think it was Chris Fowler) asked tennis announcer, and former player, Mary Jo Fernandez, whether Simona Halep, who was playing that day, was faster than Serena Williams, who wasn’t.

Fernandez immediately and unequivocally said Serena was faster.

She specifically said she thought Serena was faster sprinting from the baseline to the net (which is the longest sprint routinely made in tennis).

In my lonely room, a world away, I immediately said: “That’s crazy.”

It’s been a common occurrence, over the last fifteen years, for announcers covering a women’s tennis match to talk a lot about Serena Williams, whether she is playing or not. It’s also been common for announcers to talk about Serena in terms that treat her as existing somewhere off the human scale.

Simona Halep is one of the fastest players in the history of the WTA (easily top five, possibly top three, which I can say with some confidence since I’ve been following the tour, which began in the late sixties, religiously since the early seventies). She is, moreover, in her mid-twenties’ physical prime and has had no serious injuries.

Serena, at the time of Fernandez’s crazy talk, was well into her thirties, has had numerous injuries to her legs, and several surgeries on her knees and feet. She was probably never as fast as Simona Halep and is nowhere near as fast now.

The question itself, who is faster right now, wasn’t even a sensible one–or wouldn’t have been, if tennis announcers were used to seeing Serena Williams through a human lens, rather than some combination of Super Woman and Spoiled Child.

So why was it nonsensically asked?

And why was it answered even more nonsensically?

Because Serena Williams is….black. That’s why. Oh, and Simona Halep is white.

And, you know, black people are faster than white people. At least across short distances. Look at those sprint results in the Olympics. Look at those receivers in the NFL. Look at those base-stealing records in Major League Baseball.

And, because black people (at least those of West African descent) are, in fact, demonstrably faster across short distances than white people (look again at those sprint records), it follows that the black woman you see playing tennis (a sport where sprinter speed is awful handy) at an elite level, must be faster than even the fastest white woman playing the same sport at the same level at the same time.

In other words, this person…

cannot be faster than this person (and significantly faster at that)…

…because that would be a confusing, if not unacceptable, narrative.

I only bring this up now because proof has emerged and because I have a small point to make.

Mary Jo Fernandez, whose observation basically went unchallenged (Fowler–I still think it was him–only expressed some surprise that she was so certain) and would have been accepted by ninety-nine percent of the people who cover tennis (Martina Navratilova, who has a knack for seeing things as they are and not being afraid to speak of what she sees, might be an exception)¬†is crazy.

The linked article shows a study done at the Australian Open across several years.

The study shows, conclusively, that Halep is the fastest player on the WTA.

No duh.

Serena is in the middle of the pack–is, in fact, a touch slower than Maria Sharapova, who has never played a match without some “expert” mentioning that “movement is not her strong suit.” (Angie Kerber, the woman who incidentally took the top spot in the world rankings from Serena in 2016, has the most consistent top speed, but that speaks more to endurance than sprint speed…no one who has seen Kerber play, or even seen a snapshot of her legs, will be surprised that she endures like no other.)

It’s true that our eyes fool us, of course. But they usually fool us because we have something invested in what they can and cannot see. What Mary Jo Fernandez–and the legion of tennis announcers and fans who would have immediately agreed with her if they had been asked–has invested is simple enough.

She’s invested in the complex set of mythologies that don’t allow some white people–mostly Good Liberals like herself–to see black people in purely human terms.

Too bad. Because the reason Serena Williams is in the argument for the greatest women’s tennis player ever owes relatively little to her “athleticism.” Of course she’s a great athlete. No one gets themselves into the position of being called the greatest ever in a supremely athletic sport without being a great athlete.

But the sport is filled with great athletes. Simona Halep, a really fun player who has yet to win a major, being one.

The sport is tennis, so it’s always filled with great athletes.

You don’t become–or remain–Serena Williams, though, by being the “best” athlete, which she’s probably never been and certainly hasn’t been for more than a decade.

What you really need is a whole lot of qualities that can’t be measured by a stop watch.

Curt Gowdy once spoke of a conversation he had with a baseball scout, who told him that scouting would never be an exact science, because there would never be a way to measure the two things that mattered most: the head and the heart.

However much Serena is lauded for her toughness (often) or her tactics (occasionally) or savvy (almost never), such plaudits still fall under the shadow of the plaudit that is applied most frequently of all: She’s the best athlete!

Meaning, you know…. (whisper)...she’s black.

I don’t mean it’s only that. Other black tennis players have come and gone–and pretty much the first and last word on every one of them is that they were/are “great athletes.” But Serena is different because she has won to a level that means she has to be somehow explained.

And she has been.

That’s why, when Good Liberal white tennis announcers (the overwhelming majority–at least for the sake of public consumption), talk about the Serena Williams who has won twenty-two major titles, they speak of her as Super Woman. They speak of her as such, even when the evidence of their own eyes would plainly tell them otherwise if they only let it.

You know: She wins because she’s more than human.

And it’s why, when those same announcers talk about the Serena Williams who has failed to win the forty-three other major tournaments she’s entered (about the same percentage of failure experienced by other all-time all-timers), they speak of her almost exclusively as they might of a great Spoiled Child who has let them down by failing to live up to her inhuman potential.

You know: She loses because she’s less than human.

Or at very least, less than grown up.

They have eyes and they cannot see. Even a tennis match.

Thus they are eternally surprised.

Lest we forget: The same minds cover politics.

It’s the same minds, even if they don’t belong to the same people.

And they went a long way towards getting us into this mess, with their failure to see.