Joel Drucker: Simona Halep Finds A Path

Simona Halep was beaming. Her smile revealed teeth that hadn’t been seen too often. The grim warrior, the sour Simona, the woman who is so often her worst critic by light years, had earned a redemptive win that could well change the path of her entire career. Against Elina Svitolina in the quarterfinals, Halep was down 6-3, 5-1. She fought back, faced a match point in the tiebreaker, won the set – and then rolled through the third, 6-0.

“I stayed there till the end,” said Halep, “even if I was a little bit upset during the match.” That was one of several times in the post-match press conference when Halep invoked her tenacity.

An interesting helix of players, coaches and attitudes wove its way through Roland Garros yesterday. Hours earlier, the defending champion, Novak Djokovic, had been dispatched by Dominic Thiem, an exceptionally disengaged Djokovic winning just eight points in dropping the third set 6-0, while looking exceptionally disengaged. “I’m thinking about many things,” said Djokovic. “You know I’m just trying to sense what’s the best thing for me now.”

In the wake of what’s now a full-fledged crisis, one wonders how or even if Djokovic will continue to draw on the counsel of Andre Agassi. In theory, who better than Agassi to understand the struggles of a champion who’d lost this way? Tennis’ lost and found, after all, was a place Agassi had entered often throughout his career – many times voluntarily, with full-bodied intent towards self-destruction.

But then again, must we persistently confuse tennis coaching with autobiography? When an ex-player with a Slam-studded resume such as Agassi, Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker or Stefan Edberg begins to engage with an active player, the legend’s person key attributes are trotted out in an effort to connect the dots between legend and player. Certainly, that can be valuable. But truly, is it coaching to merely tell the player to mimic what the great player did? Why should we assume that a volleyer as skilled as Edberg was telling Roger Federer anything about how to play the net? A Hall of Famer once told me she would be better off teaching the shot she didn’t strike as well – and had to learn – than those she was more proficient at.

Now let’s look to the work Darren Cahill – Agassi’s coach for the last five years of his career – has done with Halep. If you’ve seen a story that suggests Cahill is teaching Halep how to emulate his chip-charge playing style, please send it immediately. Lacking a Hall of Fame resume, Cahill’s approach is different. He has engaged with Halep, sought to understand her on her terms: an emotional woman from Romania quite different from Cahill’s tranquil Aussie sensibility. But Cahill’s also left her on his terms, taking a sabbatical from Halep in the wake of the dark Simona surfacing during a loss in Miami in Marh. More significantly, with tough love, hard work on the court and the kind of competitive care so prevalent among Australian tennis folk, Cahill has helped Halep find herself. It is notable that at the Slams, there is no oncourt coaching allowed, as is the case at other WTA events. There’s a lesson there, a key tennis principle about autonomy, self-examination and finding a path of one’s own. One wonders, for example, what shape Halep’s emotions would have taken had she summoned Cahill in the middle of her match versus Svitolina. North or south? As Cahill and Halep have demonstrated – at least this year during Roland Garros -- an effective tennis coach is not the guru, but merely the guide.

Read more articles by Joel Drucker


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