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Halep’s rise from relative obscurity to the world No.3 in the space of just 12 months has left everyone searching for an explanation as to what has paved the way for it.
Many point to her improved confidence. Others highlight her perfect balance and exquisite footwork. But perhaps the most notable element in her arrival as a legitimate Grand Slam threat is her near-unrivalled consistency.
It has been at every tournament; rarely has she had an off day or an early loss in the past year. It has been across all four surfaces; she has won titles on each in the same space of time.
And this consistency has been a dominant factor during matches themselves, as Sabine Lisicki found out when Halep demolished her to advance to the semi-finals of the ladies’ singles at Wimbledon on Wednesday.
Halep was rock-solid against the big-hitting German, tracking down countless Lisicki blows that would have been winners against other opponents, maintaining great depth on her ground-strokes, and rarely letting her level drop. From 4-1 down in the opening set, the No.3 seed reeled off 11 straight games to end the contest in 57 minutes.
“I was a little bit lost on court. But in the beginning only,” Halep said.
“Then I wanted just to keep more rallies, point by point. I did really well. I came back very well. Then I found my way to play and my style. I stayed very aggressive, very close to the baseline, and I did my game. I opened the court very well and (used) the angles, as well.”
Lisicki was always meant to represent a dangerous prospect for the Romanian when they took to Centre Court. She views Wimbledon as “home”, and having reached the final last year, semi-finals in 2011 and quarter-finals in 2009 and 2012, it is perfectly evident that the lawns of the All England Club are to her liking. The trouble is, she has failed to produce strong results at any event outside of SW19, and by not defending her points from her 2013 run, she will tumble outside the top 30.
Nevertheless, she began strongly against Halep, wresting control of rallies with bold, first strike tennis. Showing few effects of the shoulder injury that prompted a controversial medical time-out just a day earlier against Yaroslava Shvedova, she pounded down serve after serve at more than 115mph, and bullied Halep about the court with penetrating forehands. As quick as she is, Halep simply couldn’t control such forceful blows, and committed several errors to drop serve and quickly fall behind 0-3.
Halep picked her spots wherever she could; a wrong-footing forehand here, a powerful service winner there. She got on the board in the fourth game, but sagged to a 4-1 deficit as Lisicki completed another dominant service game.
Cue the comeback. Halep settled into the contest just as the German’s level dipped slightly, and working the ball around the court in the seventh game as well as defending valiantly, she extracted a pair of backhand errors from Lisicki – one off a routine swinging volley – to break back for 4-3. She then held for 4-4, and moved ahead 0-30 as Lisicki shanked a backhand into net, then double-faulted. Cleverly peppering Lisicki’s weaker backhand wing, the Romanian broke to lead 5-4, and promptly served out the set after pouncing on a short ball and landing a forehand winner.
The turn-around had been both swift and resounding, and a shell-shocked Lisicki simply had no Plan B to counter it. Four times she had game points in the opening game of the second set, and four times she erred, handing Halep an immediate break.
From there, her game collapsed; she finished the 23-minute second set with 11 errors to just two winners while Halep steamed toward the finish line, pounding return and ground-stroke winners, athletically covering the court and generally controlling rallies. Match point encapsulated the contest; Lisicki attacked, Halep chased down a near-certain winner to keep the point alive, and a few shots later, Lisicki missed.
Halep’s consistency has been such that she is just one of two women – the other being her semi-final opponent Eugenie Bouchard – to have reached at least the quarter-finals at all Grand Slam events in 2014. “I think her style, it's dangerous on grass because she's playing very flat. She stays very close to the baseline, so she's playing fast,” Halep said of the Canadian.
“But I play, as well, close to the baseline and I'm aggressive. So we'll see tomorrow ... now I'm here and I just want to be happy because it's my best result here. So just looking forward to enjoy.”
20:08It brings me no pleasure but it's time to bring the curtain down for another year. Seemed somehow appropriate to leave the last word to Roger Federer. Thanks a billion for reading. What a fortnight, what a final, fast forward to 2015 please...
20:03"I already have seven. It's not like I need another one. But it would have been awfully nice to have it. I think that's what the feeling was of the people, and I felt that... I know they love tennis. They love tennis after we're all gone."