Simona Halep finally elevating her performance at Grand Slams
PARIS -- They sit there on page 75 of the media guide, a series of numbers that smack you in the face. The purse pay-outs for the 2014 French Open induce popped eyes and slacked jaws. Never mind the $2 million-plus the winner will take home -- what about 24,000 Euros, roughly $32,000, for first round losers? Or 72,000 Euros, a little less than $100,000, for winning two matches? The overall purse increased 15 percent from last year and will increase comparably next year.
The effect of this raise is the acceleration of a trend: the Grand Slams are the sport's tentpoles, four events of overarching importance. More than ever, performance at the four Majors defines a player's career and reputation.
Coming into today's fourth-round match, Sloane Stephens was 14-11 on the year. But she was 6-1 at the Majors; 8-10 at the other tournaments. The results suggest inconsistency, and a regression from last year. But as long as she's getting it done at the biggest events, she'll earn enough points to remain in the upper echelon of players.
The other events during the year are sandwich fillers. Players build their schedules to peak at the Slams. If there's even a chance a nagging injury will impact performance at a Slam, players will think nothing of pulling out of a tune-up tournament. You want risk the payout at a major to play at, say, the Strasbourg Open, where the champion gets around $45,000, when two wins at a Major gets you twice that much money?
Stephens' opponent in Monday's fourth-round match, Simona Halep, is the opposite extreme. Seeded fourth, Halep is the highest-ranked remaining player in the draw. She's been dazzling over the last year, steadily climbing the ranks while winning seven titles at the sandwich-filler events. But Halep has only reached the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam once -- earlier this year at the Australian Open. Despite all of her WTA titles, there's a sense that she still needs to prove herself. She took a big step today. Hitting uninhibitedly and showing off some real athleticism, she subdued Stephens in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3 and moved into the quarterfinals.
"I had a lot of matches, but I didn't just play small tournaments," Halep said in her post-match press conference. "I also played Doha, and I [reached the] quarterfinals in Australia, and Madrid I [reached the] finals. I have more confidence in me now, and I try to do my best at the Grand Slams also. I'm in quarterfinals for the second time this year. I'm happy, and I feel prepared to go more far."
She didn't come here to win four matches. She came to win seven. She knows as well as anyone: they're called Majors for a reason.
• Andrea Petkovic was the first winner Monday, moving into the quarterfinals with a three-set win over qualifier Kiki Bertens. Petkovic hasn't beaten a top-70 opponent in Paris, but here she is in the round of eight, ready to scoop up a minimum $300,000 payday. You know what? Good for her. If anyone deserves a nod from the karma gods, it's her.
• His court ringed by agents, USTA personnel and manufacturers, top-seeded junior player Francis Tiafoe from Maryland lost in the boys' tournament in three sets. Chalk it up to a learning experience. For more on Tiafoe, read here.
• Name the one male player not to lose a set so far this event? Rafael Nadal, who breezed past Dusan Lajovic on Monday.
Will Samantha Stosur ever get past her mental demons? I, probably like many others who watched her against Maria Sharapova, knew at 3-3 in the second set she would start to choke. And unfortunately, that's exactly what happened. I really like her and her game, but wow, is she just doomed to blow it in these kinds of matches?
-- Jeff Johnson, Fort Worth, Tex.
• The Tennis Channel discussion: is Stosur the female Tsonga? Technically sloppy, iffy backhand, good athlete, physical presence, shotmaker, nice person, mentally permeable. Here's the irony about Stosur: she's had so many matches like yesterday, when her mental limitations overpower her physical strengths. Yet in the most pressure-packed match of her life -- the 2011 U.S. Open final against Serena Williams -- she didn't flinch.
Did you have misgivings writing about Francis Tiafoe? It seems as if you had a hand in starting the hype bandwagon. Yet you have also written about heaping too much attention on young players. What goes into deciding whether to write about the latest teen phenom or not?
-- Bob, Gaithersburg, Md.
• I wouldn't say misgivings, but, sure this story was subject to a balance test. We all try to be measured and avoid hype, especially when it's conferred on a 16-year-old. Donald Young has reached the top 50 and made almost $2 million in prize money. But he never fulfilled the pronouncement made when he was a teenager and is thus seen as a disappointment.
This has to be weighed against an obligation to tell relevant stories. In Tiafoe's case, he won both the Orange Bowl and Easter Bowl, he comes to the French Open as top seed (and second-ranked junior.) And, yes, his backstory is tremendous. This seems imminently worthy of coverage and attention. How do you suppress this or ignore it? So, yes, I went into this with some trepidation. But after meeting the kid -- and getting assurances from those around that is he aware of the inevitable pressures and demands that come with being a top American prospect -- I felt better about it all.
Can we put this to bed once and for all -- THERE IS NO BIG FOUR. Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer -- that's it. Of these three, Djokovic has the fewest Grand Slam victories (six), and Murray only has two. It's not even close. Doesn't Lleyton Hewitt have two Slam wins -- does that make it the Big Five? If Juan Martin Del Potro wins another, does it become the Big Six? Wawrinka, the Big Seven? Murray needs to win at least two more Slams to be in the discussion -- and no, the Olympics don't count.
-- Todd Purvis, Thomasburg, Ontario
• Can we compromise and say 3.5? No one would argue that Murray's achievements don't compare with those of the other three (you know, the Big Three.) But we're talking about a multi-Slam winner, who has spent years consistently going deep in the Grand Slams regardless of surface. (And I do give much credence to the Olympics which most players prepared for -- physically and mentally -- as if it were a Major.) Murray has been to seven Slam finals. Wawrinka, Del Potro and Hewitt have been to six, combined. Murray has gone almost four years without losing before the quarters of a Major. I'm prepared to err on the side of overinclusion here.