SINGAPORE – Two WTA Tour championships rookies met each other Monday night, their first experience with the pomp and circumstance and the novel notion of facing a top-five player in your very first match of the tournament. And your second. And your third.
You don’t even have time to get your feet wet before you play what, at a regular event, could easily be a final.
“I was really excited. I felt like the entrance was huge and quite dramatic. I think it was great. Just felt like a party on the court. We don't have that kind of, I don't know, atmosphere week in and week out, so I thought it was pretty fun on the court,” Bouchard said. “I wasn't too nervous. I was more kind of excited and wanted to try to play some good tennis, which I didn't do. That was the disappointment.”
Halep is often overlooked and sometimes underestimated, perhaps in part because compared to some of the Amazons that grace the top of women’s tennis these days, she’s … normal-sized.
But the Romanian is good. Very, very good. Not Amazon good or flashy good. But fundamentally sound from the baseline, quick, and precise.
On a day Bouchard accumulated the unforced errors and didn’t serve well – the match ended on her fifth double fault, and Halep generally had few issues on the return – her fundamentals were more than enough.
“I think today I had complete game, and just want to hit the balls very hard, to open the angles, and to play with good length. So I did,” Halep said. “I served very well today. I'm really happy with my game. I think I was more concentrated (than) her today during the match. I felt more fresh.”
The two players met twice this season; Halep pulled out a narrow victory at Indian Wells, and Bouchard won fairly convincingly in their Wimbledon semi-final. But Halep was hobbled that day at the All-England Club, and didn’t put up much of a fight. “During the Wimbledon, during the first set I had injury with my ankle and wasn't easy to continue the match,” she said. “I tried first set, but in the second set I couldn't stay focused anymore.”
Bouchard said she didn’t feel any pain in the left leg that slowed her down the last few weeks and limited her practice time. But she added that she couldn’t know for sure yet how she had come through it because the adrenaline was still flowing less than an hour after the end of the match.
She had the upper leg wrapped both in practices and during the match. Halep, whose late season also has been compromised, had similar tape. But she said she felt no pain from the hip injury she was dealing with last month, and the tape was just for “safety”.
“Today there was definitely a lack of consistency,” Bouchard said. “You know, it's unfortunate. I think it's something you kind of get when you haven't played a competitive match since, like, Wuhan. I didn't feel match sharp.”
It’s a legitimate issue. But in this case the lack of match sharpness was on both sides of the net. Bouchard did, in fact, play after Wuhan; after reaching the final there and losing to Petra Kvitova three weeks ago, she went to Beijing and lost her first match there to Sabine Lisicki of Germany. Then she went to Linz, Austria and won her first-round match before pulling out the event.
Halep reached the quarter-finals in Beijing but after a gruelling victory over Andrea Petkovic of Germany to get there, she pulled out and returned home to Romania to have an MRI done on the hip. She hadn’t played since, until Monday night.
There were two dynamics at play during the match, and neither was in Bouchard’s favour. The former big server has not been serving at that level for much of the second half of the season, the plan appearing to be taking less risk with the first serve and try to increase the percentage, to keep the more vulnerable second delivery out of the mix as much as possible.
It's a popular plan these days on the women's tour. But 150 km/h on the first serve, and 125 km/h on the second won’t trouble Halep on the return. Many of Bouchard’s errors came on that all-important second shot, right off the return of serve. It was coming hard, and deep, and she had trouble handling it.
Conversely, the Canadian really never got any kind of a look at Halep’s serve, often criticized as the weakest part of the Romanian’s game. She locates it pretty well; still, it doesn’t seem quite right that Halep’s fastest serves were a lot faster than Bouchard’s fastest, and by a fair margin.
The Romanian served at just 48 per cent effectiveness, yet Bouchard won just 13 points on Halep’s serve in the match.
On the plus side, the round-robin format means the Canadian need not book an early flight. Her next opponent on Wednesday, the way the WTA Tour Finals format generally works, should be Ana Ivanovic, who lost to Serena Williams 6-4, 6-4 in the first match of the night. Halep will play Williams, whom she has not faced this season.