Surprisingly, American #20 Coco Vandeweghe and Romanian #8 Simona Halep have never met on any court. The twenty-five year olds met for the first time in the quarterfinals at the Mutua Madrid Open. The match was much-anticipated as both players were well positioned for success this clay season.
Vandeweghe had a successful run on clay at Fed Cup last month leading America to victory over the Czechs. Her improved fitness and movement has her on a winning streak of sorts. She did lose to Karolina Pliskova in Stuttgart, Round of 16. Her improved consistency and focus is serving her well. At six feet, Vandeweghe has the height advantage which she leverages to produce excellent serves and shots with stinging pace, especially her forehand. The outspoken player can be seen as brash and hot-headed on court, throwing rackets and calling out umpires. However, she does work hard on court to engage the fans, sharing her emotions often with a running commentary of her game. She certainly does not put on or keep a game face. The worst her game got, especially in the second set, the longer and louder the self-talk got.
Could there be two players any more different? One struts defiantly on court and readily demands acknowledgment from the crowd after shot making and the other one shies away from confrontation and walks meekly letting her game do all the talking.
Halep is the more experienced and successful with fourteen titles and a ranking high of #2 in 2015. After a stellar season in 2015, her on court success stalled likely as a result of the weight of success, fame and paralyzing fear of being stalked. The stakes are high for Halep. She wants to defend her Madrid title and surely there is also some interest in pleasing Ion Țiriac, the Romanian owner of the Madrid Masters that since 2009. Tiriac has supported his compatriot emotionally for many years. Ultimately this tournament, is a springboard to besting her 2014 French Open Finalist title. After her wins against Kr. Pliskova 6-1, 6-2, Vinci 6-3, 2-6, 7-6(2) and Stosur 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 Halep was ready for Vandeweghe’s big game.
Halep took the court with a clear game plan which she executed flawlessly. She exploited Vandeweghe’s movement, inability to hit on the run and lack of patience in long rallies. Halep determined to break-down her opponents backhand, regularly serving down the T and returning shot after shot to Vandeweghe’s backhand from the first game of the match. However, she was unafraid of Vandeweghe’s serve and forehand. Halep was aggressive and controlled much of the match. She neutralized Vandeweghe’s serve and forehand with her movement and near error free play.
Unable to hold serve, Vandeweghe’s game quickly crumbled. Her serves lacked the variety she showed at Fed Cup. She focused on the T and sprinkled some out wide, but neglected the body or kick serves which would have given Halep more difficulty. After the second game of the first set, Halep really pounced, breaking Vandeweghe’s serve and putting a strangle hold on the match.
Vandeweghe’s gameplan was faulty and she refused or was unable to alter it even after an on-court coaching visit from Craig Kardon, who has previously worked with star players like Martina Navratilova, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, and Ana Ivanovic. Coming to net, on a player with Halep’s speed and court sense wasn’t an effective strategy. The most dangerous hole in her plan was trying to keep points short with risky shot making. She simply refused to be patient, to construct points, even in long rallies. If she was successful with two or three ball rallies early in the match, it would have been wise to continue. However, after losing the first set 6-1, she just kept going… She did return for the brief rain delay a little more patient which enabled her to finally make a dent in Halep’s service game; up 40-0, she could not close-out the game and Helep eventually won it with a beautiful passing shot with Vandeweghe inexplicably at the net.
Vandeweghe’s wins against Kontaveit 6-4, 7-6, Siegemund 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 and Suarez Navarro 5-7, 6-4, 7-5 did not prepare her for the completeness of Halep’s game. Halep’s 6-1, 6-1 win over Vandeweghe announces the return to her confidence of 2014 with a much improved game. Coach Darren Cahill has helped her to leverage her movement defining her game as an aggressive whole court player. She is also playing doubles with countrywoman Irina-Camelia Begu and they are into the quarterfinal, though odds are not in their favor as they take the court with Sania Mirza and Yaroslava Shvedova. Is the single and doubles titles in the stars for Simona Halep?