It was a bad day of Tennis Hate for Number 2 US Open seed Simona Halep of Romania, making for a helluva story for Grigor Culian.
Culian is the founder, publisher, editor-in-chief, senior reporter, chief cook and bottle washer for New York Magazin, the Romanian language bi-monthly. He's been covering the US Open and its Romanian players since he founded his paper 18 years ago. "I have followed her for a couple of years," he said of the 22-year-old Halep, as we watched her play veteran grinder Mirjana Lucic-Baroni of Croatia in the Grandstand.
Halep, who reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, the final at Roland Garros and the semifinals at Wimbledon, wilted under Lucic-Baroni's powerful forehand and blistering return game. Simona lost in straight sets, 7-6 (6), 6-2 to a veteran player who leads Halep by ten years and trails her in the WTA rankings by 119 points.
You're not supposed to let your opponent back in a game," said Grigor
Lucic-Baroni is a perennial early-round write-off. She's lost in the first round 18 of her 31 appearances. With her straight set 7-6 (6), 6-2 upset of the 22-year-old French Open finalist, she moves into the fourth round of a Grand Slam for the first time in her career.
"This is incredible!" she gushed through tears in her on court interview afterwards. "I'm sorry, I'm goofy!"
It was incredible, a result that, in the beginning, neither I nor my Worthy Comrade, Grigor, would have expected. Lucic-Baroni was hitting hard and flat and strong, but she was also hitting the ball wide and long. Culian, who played tennis in college and continues to play today (doubles now, the 62-year-old said, in Juniper Park in Middle Village, Queens), said, "She is overpowering Simona, but she makes too many unforced errors. That is the difference between these two. Simona," he added, "knows how to win the big points."
Ah, but that was before Halep, serving at 5-2 for the first set, crumbled against Lucic-Baroni's aggressive returns, giving up the game and the set on a third break point. She got a second chance to put Lucic-Baroni in her place, serving at 5-4, but she was broken at love with a double fault.
"You're not supposed to let your opponent come back in a game," mused Grigor. "Simona doesn't play aggressive enough." He said you're supposed to have a killer instinct when you've got a lead. "
Grigor Culian has that instinct. He fled Ceausescu's Communist regime in February, 1989, taking advantage of a trip to the United States to visit his sister. "I filed for political asylum the moment I arrived at JFK airport," he said. In December, a month after the Berlin Wall fell, Ceausescu's regime collapsed. Culian was able to bring his then-wife and daughter Stateside. "I got so lucky," he said.
So many years! My God, this is so incredible! Every painful moment is so worth it!
Before us, under bright sunny skies on the Grandstand court, dark clouds of Tennis Hate were clouding Simona Halep's game. She double faulted again to give Mirjana the tiebreak and the first set. In the second set, she's broken in the third game.
Culian was matter-of-fact about Halep's Tennis Hate predicament. "What she has in her mind is two things. Number 1, she was leading, 5-2, in the first set. Number 2, it was 6-7 in the tiebreak and she lost with a double fault. And it stays in her mind for a long period. And when she looks up, the game is over."
And so it was. Halep's opponent, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who had won two qualifying matches last week after being 4-2 and 5-2 down in the third set, never let her wake up from her first set regret. Lucic-Baroni won the econd set handily, 6-2, with back-to-back aces. She dropped her racquet, put both hands in the air and beamed. She trotted over to her coach, hugging him as if she had just won the whole US Open.
"I had a game plan, I believed in it the whole time," she said through tears on the court. "I just kept fighting. So many years! My God, this is so incredible! I live for this! I'm so lucky to be here! Every painful moment is so worth it!"
Lucic-Baroni has struggled long and hard to make good on the promise she showed at age 15, reaching the third round at the US Open in 1997 in her very first appearance. Two years later, she was a semifinalist at Wimbledon. But injuries and what WTAtennis.com referred to as "off court struggles" hindered her progress. She barely played for much of the 2000s. It's only in the last four years that she's started to get beyond the first round in tournaments. This year, she retired in the third round in Doha against Aggie Radwanska, after her back seized up. During qualifying rounds at Indian Wells, she herniated a disk in her neck. She didn't play for three weeks after her first round loss at Wimbledon to Victoria Azarenka.
She covered her face and started crying when Daily News reporter Filip Bondy gently asked her to sum up her career so far.
"I'm a little emotional," she said. "I'ts been really hard. After so many years, to be here again, so many times. I wanted it so bad, I would burn out."
Haters, you know I was on the edge of my seat hearing this. I, too, have wanted success on the court so bad. I've wanted some return on my investment, of time, money, energy, love, and yes, Hate. Why wasn't I succeeding? I was trying SO HARD. I believed that energy, that willingness, that will, should be rewarded with, well, some W's. Some wins.
But Mirjana Lucic-Baroni has learned something that I'm beginning to experience, too. That too much will gets in the way. That a tight grip on the racquet and the mind ruins your game. That setting a goal, and then letting go of it, sets you free. Free to win, and not just by vanquishing Tennis Hate.
"I wanted it so bad, I was paralyzed, I couldn't do it," she said. "Now, I just relax. I just play tennis."