Sloane Stephens looked invincible, her game not penetrable by Simona Halep’s smaller tennis game. Stephens was totally in her comfort zone as she appeared to be headed for a second Grand Slam tournament championship in less than a year. She was up 6-4, 2-0 in Saturday’s French Open women’s final. What could Halep do with her smaller package of dynamite? Stephens’ armor appeared to be too strong. When Stephens needed to win a big point, she could just ramp up her “easy power”, and Halep was virtually helpless.
EASY POWER TOO EASY
Stephens made things look so easy. Her ground strokes were flawlessly deep and penetrating. She didn’t have to go for winners. Stephens glided around the court, seemingly unflappable as she appeared to be wearing Halep into submission when she came up with a service break to start the second set. At that time, Stephens simply appeared to be the best player in the women’s game.
Then, it happened. Stephens netted a backhand that snapped her four-game winning streak.
Just like that, Stephens snapped. She no longer could win the pressure point. When she tried to turn up the amps, her feet, and hands and arms wouldn’t cooperate. They were getting the wrong messages from Stephens’ mental side. Everything looked tired.
THE TIDE CHANGES
The tide had changed for Stephens. The 25-year-old American suddenly didn’t get set up for backhands. Backhand balls started to consistently fly left off her racket, outside the lines. She even missed an open court to two.
Plus, Stephens’ somewhat lazy habit of reaching out in front of her without moving her feet forward to set up had looked a bit suspect in the first 10 games. And now that habit became a liability for Stephens.
The footwork had been good enough to keep Halep pinned deep on the baseline until Stephens could find an opening to exploit. That habit started producing balls that sailed over the baseline as Halep applied more pressure and power to her game. Stephens no longer could keep Halep’s relentless attack at bay.
Halep started flying around the court, making Stephens hit extra balls. Stephens couldn’t seem to put away shots, not even easy ones. Halep was everywhere, covering the red clay court like a blanket.
Indecision started showing on Stephens’ once calm face. She didn’t panic for awhile, not even when she was dropping two straight love games to fall behind 3-2 in the second set.
But after Stephens got back to 4-4, she dropped back-to-back games that had been 30-30 to allow Halep to win the first set, and then lost four close games to start the third set. Stephens was in deep panic mode by then. She was far out of her comfort mode.
NO KEYS TO THE RESCUE
Madison Keys wasn’t on the other side of the net to donate points to Stephens with over-aggressiveness as she had been against Stephens in the semifinals and in last year’s U.S. Open final.
Trim, little 5-6, 130-pound Simona Halep wouldn’t give up even one point without a gallant fight. There were no free points for Stephens. No rest. No comfort.
Halep is as relentless as any player in the game, just smaller than most. But she has a giant heart.
This 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 breakthrough in a Grand Slam should push the Romanian fireball to new heights, even greater than her current No. 1 world ranking.
James Beck is the long-time tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspaper. He can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. See his Post and Courier columns at
Does WTA Need A Top Rivalry To Drive The Sport?
Iga Swiatek is the WTA’s dominant world number one but does she need a rival in order to drive the sport to new heights.
The WTA has a dominant world number one and a variety of talented players on the tour but the one thing it’s lacking at the moment is a top rivalry.
First of all it was supposed to be Bianca Andreescu and Naomi Osaka, then Ash Barty and Osaka and also Barty and Iga Swiatek.
However none of these match-ups created a top rivalry over a long period to generate an overwhelming amount of interest.
After Barty’s shock retirement, many people were left disappointed at the fact that her and current dominant world number one Iga Swiatek could not compete for the sport’s biggest titles in a fierce rivalry.
Now Swiatek sits at the top of the WTA rankings with almost a 4,000 point lead at the top. The rest of the field are very talented and that in itself is an intriguing aspect of the WTA’s appeal.
But the one thing the women’s game lacks is a top rivalry to generate a hype that the ATP clearly has right now.
As Mark Petchey said it’s an issue that needs solving soon as every sport has one, “Rivalries drive the sport. What they do is make sure that it manifests itself in a big polarisation of a large fan base, against another one,” Petchey was quoted as saying by Tennis365.
“You look across the board, over F1, look at the tribal nature of AFL, of Premier League football here. It’s a huge part of what you need to have a successful sport. That is the one thing that is missing from the women’s tour at the moment, is a superb rivalry, with a little bit of edge.
“That’s why I say I’m sad that Ash pulled up stumps, because I think that rivalry could’ve developed with Iga in that way. Would it have been quite as intense as the Rafa-Novak and Roger-Novak rivalries? Probably not. But it would have been there. Going into every major saying that you’re not looking forward to a specific clash potentially when the draw comes out, does hurt the tour a little bit.
“You can’t keep saying ‘oh, anyone can win it’. Because you’re just not tagging anybody… you’re not setting the scene for something amazing that’s going to happen, a nice little volcanic eruption right at the back-end of a major. They need some people to be a bit more consistent and getting through, because that’s what will be a massive driver for the WTA.”
It’s hard to argue with those points of view from Petchey as rivalries are what are talked about for decades after players have retired.
It will be interesting to see whether Swiatek will continue to dominate the rest of the field or whether someone can build a rivalry with the Pole heading into the remainder of the season.
The next big WTA event of the year will take place at the Rogers Cup in Toronto on the week of the eighth of August.
Steve Flink On Lleyton Hewitt’s Induction Into The International Tennis Hall Of Fame
Five years after being inducted himself for his services to tennis, the veteran commentator reflects on Hewitt’s achievements as a player.
Having attended every International Tennis Hall of Fame induction ceremony since 1995 in Newport, Rhode Island, I have grown familiar with and fond of the surroundings in that idyllic setting. It is less a three hour drive from my home in Westchester, New York. It is a place made for summertime activities, and it is where the first U.S. National Championships were held in 1881. In 2017, I was fortunate to be inducted as a contributor at the Hall of Fame.
Every single Hall of Fame ceremony is staged with a deep and enduring reverence for the sport and the greatest players who have ever stepped on a court. This year was no exception to that rule. Lleyton Hewitt became the 34th player from Australia to be inducted at Newport. This indefatigable competitor was elected to the class of 2021, but with travel in and out of his country complicated by Covid, Hewitt was unable to make the trip a year ago to join his classmates (the late) Dennis Van Der Meer and the “Original Nine” of women’s tennis which included Billie Jean King.
It was sad that Hewiitt could not make it to Newport a year ago. But no one who appeared on the ballot for 2022 was elected. That was unprecedented. And so the fans and the tennis community were grateful that Hewitt could make the journey from the land “Down Under” this year to accept the ultimate honor of his career at the age of 41. Being there for all of the festivities— including a dinner the evening before and a brunch on induction day— it was strikingly apparent to me that Hewitt fully recognized the magnitude of the accolade and took nothing for granted. He relished the chance to take his place among the elite performers in the history of his profession, and conducted himself with unmistakable grace and dignity.
Hewitt celebrated a multitude of soaring achievements in his time as a top flight player, winning the US. Open in 2001, taking the Wimbledon title in 2002, leading Australia to victory in the Davis Cup twice. He concluded 2001 and 2002 as the No, 1 ranked player in the world and competed in at least one major tournament for twenty consecutive years (1997-2016). He secured 30 career titles in singles, but was also a first rate doubles player, capturing the U.S. Open alongside Max Mirnyi in 2000. Hewitt must be regarded as one of the most resilient competitors of his or any era. His courage and unflagging commitment to the game were commendable.
Presenting Hewitt to the fans in Newport—and those sitting in their living rooms watching on television at home— were, fittingly, John Newcombe and Tony Roche. These two Hall of Famers formed one of the greatest doubles partnerships of all time, winning Wimbledon five times. Roche won one major (Roland Garros in 1966) in singles while Newcombe garnered seven Grand Slam singles titles, securing three crowns at Wimbledon in 1967, 1970 and 1971.
But I digress. Newcombe and Roche were seen on video saluting Hewitt because they played critical roles in the evolution of this inimitable individual as a player. Newcombe was Hewitt’s Davis Cup captain, while Roche was his coach in the 1990’s and beyond. They contributed mightily to Hewitt’s technical and tactical understanding of the game. Moreover, both men were loyal and unwavering friends of Hewitt’s. Roche even made an unannounced trip to Newport to be there in person for Hewitt, a magnanimous gesture that was very well received.
Roche recalled his introduction to a 12 or 13 year old Hewitt at a charity event in Adelaide. Newcombe recollected Hewitt coming to his tennis academy in Texas. Hewitt was 14 and asked Newcombe if he could interview him. Newcombe agreed to do it immediately, and the precocious kid had 25 questions prepared for one of his heroes. As Newcombe reflected, “That [gave me] a good idea of how organized he was.”
Both Newcombe and Roche vividly remembered Hewitt’s spectacular Davis Cup debut at the Longwood Cricket Club outside Boston. Hewitt was replacing an injured Mark Philippoussis in the Australian lineup. Hewitt upended Todd Martin on the opening day and led the way for the Australians to topple the U.S. in the quarterfinals during the celebratory centenary year for Davis Cup in 1999. Later that season, he took apart Marat Safin and Yevgeny Kafelnikov as Australia defeated Russia in the semifinals, and then the Aussies took the Cup by ousting France in the final.
Four years later, Hewitt was instrumental again as the Australians were Davis Cup victors once more, defeating Spain in the final at home in Melbourne. His Davis Cup record was astounding. Altogether, Hewitt won 59 of 80 matches playing for his country, prevailing in 42 of 56 singles matches and 17 of 24 doubles contests.
Roche summed up Hewitt’s competitive days succinctly, saying, “What a remarkable career Lleyton has had. He was one of the youngest players to ever win an ATP Tour event in his hometown of Adelaide[ early in 1998 when he was still 16] He’s still the youngest ever No. 1 ATP ranked player at the end of the year [2001, when he was 20]. He won two year-end Masters tournaments, two Grand Slams, and his Davis Cup record is the greatest in Australian history. He’s played more ties and won more matches than any other Australian, and we’ve had some great Davis Cup players.”
That, of course, was a deliberate understatement. Among the many standouts Roche was referring to are Frank Sedgman, Roy Emerson, Neale Fraser, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and, of course, himself and Newcombe. In any case, Newcombe and Roche covered the spectrum of Hewitt’s career and got to the essence of Hewitt as a human being impeccably in their tribute. Newcombe concluded with these poignant words: “Yeah, we’re proud, Lleyton, to have known you and to be able to spend some time with you. It was an honor for us.”
Now it was time for Hewitt to step up to the microphone, and he was not at a loss for words. In nearly all International Tennis Hall of Fame ceremonies, honorees largely try to keep their remarks relatively short because there are generally multiple Hall of Famers in any given year. But Hewitt had the luxury when he took his turn up at the rostrum to speak expansively without worrying about going on too long. He could relax and convey his thoughts deliberately in front of an attentive and appreciative audience early on the evening of July 16.
Hewitt delivered his impressive speech passionately, authentically and self-deprecatingly. He was much more interested in saluting those who had played leading roles in allowing him to realize his largest dreams than he was in patting himself on the back. He thanked the Hall of Fame for the honor, paid tribute to his 2021 classmates Dennis Van Der Meer and the Original Nine, and then became philosophical as he reflected on his exalted status.
He said, “The Hall of Fame seemed like something that was so far away from me ever being a part of. It was never something I thought about as a player, and it was always, I thought, for the people who were my idols growing up and the absolute legends of the sport…. To think that it all began for me on junior courts in the middle of nowhere in Adelaide in Australia, with no one watching, no TV cameras, and then to make the full tennis journey and now be coming into the Hall of Fame [is very special].”
Following up on that theme and displaying his gratitude for competing for so long against formidable rivals from different eras, Hewitt pointed out, “I feel fortunate that I was able to play across different generations, that I was able to be on the same court as my heroes Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, and then go on and compete against three of the greatest tennis players our sport has ever seen in Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.”
What Hewitt left out was that he celebrated some immensely rewarding moments against all five of the aforementioned players. He finished with a 5-4 career winning record against the redoubtable Sampras, including a 7-6 (7-4), 6-1, 6-1 triumph in his first major final at the 2001 U.S Open. Hewitt was 4-4 against Agassi. He was 9-18 against Federer after taking seven of their first nine duels, but it must be mentioned that Hewitt stunned the Swiss Maestro in their last appointment ever at Brisbane in 2014. Although he lost seven of eleven duels versus Nadal, Hewitt toppled the Spaniard at the 2004 and 2005 Australian Opens. Even then, Nadal was awfully tough to beat. Finally, Hewitt was 1-6 against Djokovic, but achieved his lone victory over the Serbian at the 2006 U.S. Open.
Be that as it may, Hewitt next spoke of his affection for Newport, a place he performed many times. As he recounted, “You feel the history and tradition of tennis as soon as you walk in here. I first came here as a 17-year-old playing the Newport event back in ‘98…. Later on in my career I came here quite a few times and thoroughly enjoyed it. I came close a couple of times, losing in the final in 2012 an 2013. That just made me more desperate as the kind of person I was. I wanted to get my name on the trophy here and actually win where the Hall of Fame [tournament] was played. I was able to do that in 2014. It was so perfect. It ended up being the last title of my career, which I look back on and I’m so proud of. Believe it or not, in my 20-odd-year career I had never won the singles and doubles at the same tournament ever, but that particular week in 2014 in Newport I did it.”
Hewitt was flowing freely now, relieving his entire life in many ways, thoroughly enjoying the chance to reminisce. He retraced his youth playing AFL (Australian Football League), the highest level of Australian Rules football. As he mentioned, “It’s a tough, true Australian team sport. My Dad, my grandfather and my uncle all played it professionally. That was my dream to one day follow in their footsteps.” He spoke of his transition to tennis as a kid and the sound advise he received from his earliest coach, Peter Smith, who started working with Hewitt when the youngster was six.
Naturally, Hewitt soon sent some praise in the direction of Darren Cahill, the coach who boosted him immeasurably during the heart of his career. As Hewitt explained, “I had a few coaches during my career and I want to thank all those tour coaches, but especially Darren Cahill…. It wouldn’t be until the end of 98’ that I started traveling with Darren as my tour coach. We had plenty of things in common, but the biggest thing was our family’s connection with AFL football, even though we absolutely hated each other’s AFL teams. But it was really special that I could win my first Grand Slam in singles and doubles and get to world No. 1 with my coach from my hometown of Adelaide, Darren Cahill.”
Hewitt was leaving no stone unturned as he reflected on years gone by, milestones met and people who inspired him along the way. One of them was Sweden’s dynamic Mats Wilander. As Hewitt said, “ I became known for my ‘c’mons’ on the court and my celebration sign. Not many people knew, but Mats was the one that started it. It was called the ‘vicht’. He did it from Sweden.”
After lauding Davis Cup captains John Fitzgerald and Pat Rafter, he then offered some well deserved praise for Newcombe, who was so inspirational in a multitude of ways. “Thanks, Newk, for all of your support over the years, mate. I loved nothing more than going into battle with you.”
And it would not be long before Hewitt would let it be known just how critical a role Roche had played in his life.
“I wouldn’t be receiving this honor if it wasn’t for this bloke,“ he said of Roche. “Rochey, mate, you mean so much to me that you made the effort to make the long trek over from Australia to be here with me today. I’ve been so fortunate to have you as a coach, mentor and more importantly to call you a mate. What you’ve done for Australian tennis is second to none. In my opinion you are the greatest coach, but it’s the culture you’ve created through the Australian Davis Cup team that sets the tone for future Australian tennis. You’ve done it for decades now. We’ve been through a lot together, mate, on and off the court. We’ve helped each other through some really tough times and celebrated the great moments.”
Hewitt paid homage to many others, including his parents, wife and three kids, before concluding with this: “I want to thank all the past Hall of Famers for being here this weekend. It wouldn’t be the same if you guys weren’t here and I didn’t have people to look up to that had done it before me. It’s been an unbelievable experience for me, the whole buildup the last couple of years, but especially this weekend. I think it’s fitting for me to be inducted here in Newport at such a special place.”
Afterwards, a number of Hall of Famers from other classes assembled not far away from where the ceremony took place to pose for photographs together. Afterwards, a group of Hall of Famers including 1992 inductee Tracy Austin and 2017 honoree Andy Roddick circled around Hewitt and shared some congenial banter. I was delighted to be a part of that because I had never seen anything like it. As the sole Hall of Famer on the stage this year, Hewitt was deservedly showered with considerable affection and respect from those who had been there before him. They wanted to share their thoughts with him, and Hewitt was happy and humbled to hear what they had to say.
The next day, I made the three hour drive home with my wife, and found myself reflecting on what made Hewitt the champion he was. It started with his unshakable psyche and his towering qualities as a competitor. Another significant factor was his magnificent return of serve. Across the last fifty years— at least in my view— Djokovic’s return of serve has been the very best, with Jimmy Connors right behind him. But in my view Hewitt’s return must be regarded as the third best of the last half century. Some experts believe Rafael Nadal’s return of serve belongs up there with Djokovic and Connors, but I in my view Hewitt’s was better than the Spaniard’s.
Hewitt might have achieved even more if his career had not been plagued by so many injuries over his last ten years on the circuit. But the fact remains that Hewitt made the most of his opportunities and fought with astonishing ferocity to accomplish everything he did. He need not look back with any regrets. In the final analysis, Lleyton Hewitt was an exemplary professional, a fellow who never made excuses, a player who was as professional as anyone in his trade, and a man who landed fittingly in Newport to put a capstone on his sterling career.
It’s Unfair, Rafa Is Too Good In Roland Garros Final
James Beck reflects on Nadal’s latest triumph at Roland Garros.
This one was almost unfair.
It was like Rafa Nadal giving lessons to one of his former students at the Nadal academy back home in Mallorca.
When this French Open men’s singles final was over in less than two hours and a half, Rafa celebrated, of course. But he didn’t even execute his usual championship ritual on Court Philippe Chatrier of falling on his back on the red clay all sprawled out.
This one was that easy for the 36-year-old Spanish left-hander. He yielded only six games.
It certainly didn’t have the characteristics of his many battles at Roland Garros with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.
It must have been a bit shocking to the packed house of mostly Rafa fans.
RAFA DIDN’T MISS ‘HIS SHOT’ OFTEN
Nadal didn’t miss many of his patented shots such as his famed reverse cross-court forehand. He was awesome at times. Young 23-year-old Casper Ruud must have realized that by the middle of the second set when Rafa started on his amazing 11-game winning streak to finish off a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 victory.
Ruud is good. The Norway native will win his share of ATP titles, but probably not many Grand Slam titles. If any, at least until Rafa goes away to a retirement, certainly on his island of Mallorca.
Rafa already has his own statue on the grounds of Roland Garros. Perhaps, Mallorca should be renamed Rafa Island.
RUUD COULDN’T HANDLE RAFA’S PRESSURE
Ruud displayed a great forehand at times to an open court. But when Rafa applied his usual pressure to the corners Ruud’s forehand often went haywire.
Rafa’s domination started to show in the third set as Ruud stopped chasing Nadal’s wicked reverse cross-court forehands.
Ruud simply surrendered the last three games while Nadal yielded only three points. Nadal finished it off with a sizzling backhand down the line. In the end, nice guy, good sport and former student Ruud could only congratulate Rafa.
JOHNNY MAC: RAFA ‘INSANELY GOOD’
The great John McEnroe even called Nadal’s overall perfection “insanely good.”
If Iga Swiatek’s 6-1, 6-3 win in Saturday’s women’s final over young Coco Gauff was a mismatch, Iga’s tennis idol staged a complete domination of Ruud a day later.
It appears that the only thing that can slow Rafa down is his nearly always sore left foot, not his age. He won his first French Open final 17 years ago.
For Nadal to win a 22nd Grand Slam title to take a 22-20-20 lead over his friends and rivals Djokovic and Federer is mind-boggling, but not as virtually unbelievable as winning a 14th French Open title.
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.
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