Viewpoint Halep’s Achilles’ heel is grueling WTA schedule

August 21, 2018 GMT

NEW HAVEN — At 1:30 Monday afternoon, Simona Halep asked Anne Worcester to meet her in the parking lot outside Connecticut Tennis Center.

“I’m so sorry,” the No. 1 ranked player in the world told the Connecticut Open tournament director.

“So am I,” Worcester answered. “We’re really sorry, but I get it.”

Within an hour, Halep, who had won the Rogers Cup in Montreal, won nine matches in a row before finally running out of gas in the final against Kiki Bertens Sunday in Cincinnati, announced she was withdrawing as a wild-card entry because of a right Achilles’ injury.

“Since the French Open I have it,” the Romanian said. “I had to pull out from another tournament before Wimbledon because of it. It’s bothering me, but I have to go through it. When I have the possibility to take a rest, I take a rest because it’s important.”

Do I believe the Achilles’ injury is the full reason she withdrew at New Haven? Of course not. And there is no shame in it.

The real Achilles’ heel isn’t Simon Halep’s. It is the demanding nature of the WTA schedule. And in this case, Halep’s decision to schedule three successive weeks of hardcourt tournaments heading into the fortnight of the U.S. Open proved overwhelming.

That doesn’t make it any easier on Worcester, who had attracted five of the top 10 players in the world, the best field in a dozen years. The happiest warrior for Connecticut tennis deserved a happier fate. By 3 p.m., all four wild-card entries were gone and Worcester couldn’t remember that ever happening.

“Not a day has gone by the past month that people said, ‘Are you sure Simona’s going to play Montreal, Cincinnati, New Haven, U.S. Open?’” Worcester said. “But she’s a player who likes matches instead of practicing. And no player is going to call and ask for a wild card four weeks out unless there’s a darn good reason for it.”

The problem, a good one for Halep, a bad one for Worcester, is that Halep kept winning. In Montreal, she barked about the scheduling, complicated by the rain, but she settled down and won it all. At the Western & Southern Open, because of the rain, she again played two matches in one day. Her coach, Darren Cahill, talked about using Rafa Nadal, all effort and determination, as an inspiration. “She’s a little Rafa on the practice court,” Cahill told reporters in Cincinnati. “We need to make her a little Rafa on the match court.” It obviously was working.

On Saturday, Worcester said Cahill asked about looking into a private plane to arrive Sunday night. It was decided she wanted to fly commercial, so Worcester knew, win or lose Sunday, Halep would be arriving Monday.

“There was a ton of communication about hotels and airfare and I’ve been doing this long enough to know that’s when you know (a player wants to come),” Worcester said. “It’s when they go radio silent, that’s when you know they’re not coming. As of Sunday morning, (it was) ‘We’re still coming.’

“The match didn’t start until 2 o’clock and after crazy weather and double-up matches in both Montreal and Cincy, when she won the first set (against Bertens), I’m like OK, she’s still coming. When they split sets that’s when I got nervous. She squandered match point and when they went into the third set you could tell she was hitting the wall.”

Halep, who captured her first major title this spring at the French Open, didn’t climb to the top of the world rankings because she’s an imposing 6 feet or she has a serve that peels paint off the Royal Box at Wimbledon.

The way she chases down balls, throws herself into every shot as if it were her last, that’s what is so mesmerizing about the 5-foot-6 Romanian. She’s all flying sparks and kinetic energy.

“She puts her heart and soul into every point,” Worcester said.

The body pays a price for such effort.

So does the mind.

Halep played 10 matches in 12 days before climbing aboard that flight from Cincinnati on Monday morning.

“I don’t think anyone who’s won Montreal and reached the finals of Cincinnati has had gas in the tank to come,” Worcester said. “She said she never could have anticipated she’d do so well — she lost (round of 32) at Wimbledon — and that the weather would require her to play twice a day. If you look at her scheduling, it was crazy, second match at night after rain delays.”

It’s much nobler to do what Halep did than to come and tank. Yes, it happens. Good grief, Pete Sampras, one of classiest, grittiest players ever, went south in New Haven one year.

Halep asked Worcester if she could do something for the fans. So she went up to the Avangrid Power Zone. Avangrid’s CEO happened to be there, so that was a nice coincidence. And then Halep was off to New York.

“Always, I didn’t pay total attention on the Grand Slam,” Halep said. “I took every tournament very important. We can see that in the past I did. This tournament was very important just to play matches and, of course, to think about the title. I love to play here and the court fits me.

“I didn’t expect this, to be honest. I came off the long break. I was on holiday because I was really empty emotionally after the French Open and Wimbledon. But maybe because I was relaxed I could play my best tennis. It was a big challenge for me to come back and play good matches and also tough matches. So it was really difficult. Now that I have to withdraw I have to rest and I will see if I will be 100 percent for the U.S. Open.”

There are four U.S. Open Series tournaments on the road to New York. Typically, a top player will choose two. Some will choose three. The lower-ranked players, not expecting to get to the semis or finals, enter all four. There is a mandate for participation for certain levels of tournaments. New Haven’s biggest challenge is it follows two Premier 5 events.

“The good thing for us is many of the top women, as opposed to the men, would rather play into form and have tough matches than practice heading into the U.S. Open,” Worcester said. “That’s why we ultimately gave up the men’s tournament. All top (women’s) players have to play two Premier 700 events (Connecticut is one) or they get a zero point. So Simona has to choose Moscow or Tokyo now. She may have wanted to play in New Haven.”

And then Anne Worcester, the happiest tennis warrior, smiled.

“Hey, we still have a great field,” she said. “I have a feeling there’s going to be a really great story coming out of this tournament this week.”