Cori Gauff could not resist one final, desperate challenge, but by the time she had waved an optimistic finger at James Keothavong, Simona Halep had already started striding confidently to the net, her left fist clenched in silent jubilation. After greeting her crestfallen opponent at the net, Halep held an apologetic hand up to the four corners of Court No.1, before turning for her chair. She did not allow her expression to soften until she was already packing her bag.
Halep knew full well to keep her celebrations to a respectful minimum. She had read the room. She understand the audience she was performing for. And she had long since realised that the tittering masses who had crammed their way onto court were more interested in witnessing a raw sporting phenomenon than a competitive match. Halep wasn’t just playing Gauff, but the 12,345 punters sat sipping Pimm’s, too.
That she swatted Gauff aside so ruthlessly — 6-3, 6-3 in an economical 75-minutes — is testament to the huge strides forward she has made in recent years. It has not always been that way. And Halep’s achievement on an overcast Monday afternoon should not be lost amid the understandable clamour to celebrate Gauff’s breathtaking emergence at the very top of the sport.
Simona Halep remains one of the most psychologically complicated characters currently playing on the WTA Tour. In the early years of her career, she went almost a year without winning two matches in a row. In 2017 she choked in the quarter-finals of the Miami Open against Britain’s Johanna Konta, collapsing to a three-set defeat despite being just two points from victory. Later on that season, a similar thing happened on an even bigger stage. A set and three games up in the final of the French Open, Halep first froze and then faltered in the face of Jeļena Ostapenko’s kamikaze tennis: another uninhibited teenager swinging greedily for the lines, breezily unaware of the significance of the ocassion.
In glorious contrast, Gauff is one of the most psychologically uncomplicated characters currently playing on the WTA Tour. She is 15-years-old. She was an unseeded qualifier at this tournament. She was expected to lose every single match she played. And so, with the thrilling boundlessness of youth, she arrives on court and wields her 27in, 11.2oz Head graphene racquet as though it is a sledgehammer, playing with a potent blend of freedom, ferocity and fun that is envied by the fully-grown women she already shares the locker room with.
She has had another advantage. An advantage that was again obvious against Halep and is perhaps even more considerable than her extraordinary athleticism, 117mph serve, slippery sliced backhand and freakishly mature mentality. And that is the complete and utter adulation of the famously fickle Wimbledon crowd. They have adopted her as one of their own: lustily roaring her every minor triumph and self-consciously hollering every time her opponent has the misfortune to make an error, forced or otherwise.
There are strict rules to Wimbledon, where the cobwebs of 142 years of fastidious tradition cling to the walls with the hydrangeas and Boston ivy. One of the most sacred is that the underdog is always deliriously supported — unless they happen to be playing a Briton, or a particularly popular former champion. And while the second largest show court at Wimbledon is hardly Ellis Park in Johannesburg, or CenturyLink Field in Seattle, or La Bombonera in Buenos Aires, the fanatical fans here can — and often do — make a difference. Precious few wanted Halep to beat Gauff. That is not always easy for a player to take.
It certainly had an effect on Gauff’s third round opponent, Slovenia’s Polona Hercog, who found herself with two match points before collapsing to a painful 3-6, 7-6(7), 7-5 defeat, battling not only a prodigious teenager but an increasingly partisan Centre Court crowd. “It is definitely difficult in some big moments,” she later admitted, upon being quizzed on her notable dearth of support.
There is a good chance that the old Halep — the Halep who hopped off an aeroplane, checked into a hotel, won a match, lost a match, checked out of the hotel and hopped back onto an aeroplane — would have gone the same way as Hercog, and wilted under the pressure. But not this Halep. Not the Halep who has worked tirelessly with a sports psychologist, reaching the top of the WTA rankings in 2007 and winning at Roland Garros a year later. Instead, she focused on the task at hand, the World No.7 taking care of business against the World No.313.
Not that there weren’t any hiccups. Early into the first set she double faulted three times in a row, the first drawing a snicker, the second a full-blooded roar and the third something approaching pandemonium. Later, during a titanic tussle at two games apiece, Gauff struck an inch-perfect forehand hit with more fizz than a freshly opened can of Perrier, resulting in the kind of cheer that will have had more than a few over on Centre Court sneaking a look at their mobile phone.
But this was not going to be the kind of match that an especially involved crowd can bend to their will. Halep hurried between points, never allowing Gauff to settle into a rhythm, breaking decisively midway through the first set and again in the second. No matter what Gauff threw at her, there she was: returning, returning, returning. It would end up her second quickest victory this fortnight. She is peaking at precisely the right time.
Regardless of this afternoon’s result, this year’s Championships will always belong to Gauff, the 15-year-old girl who knocked out Venus Williams, Magdaléna Rybáriková and Hercog. But she is not the only player who has developed before our very eyes. Halep’s brilliance is no longer undermined by brittleness. Heading into the quarter-finals, this Grand Slam is hers to take.
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