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Finding Roger Federer Meltdown footage on YouTube is like finding a seat on the Number 4 Lexington Avenue subway at 9:30 in the morning. [Non-New Yorkers, take note: it's rare.] The Greatest of All Time usually deals with blown shots by dragging his middle finger across his forehead and tucking his hair behind his ear. Not this time. This was a semi-final match with Novak Djokovic at the 2009 Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, Florida. Djokovic just broke Fed in the third and deciding set and was up 15-0 when the Greatest of All Time took his eyes off a routine approach shot that could have evened the score. Federer went through lots of racquets when he was playing the junior circuit; wonder if he felt a little wave of nostalgia upon banging this one hard into the court.

On the Sideline

Entries in Simona Halep (2)


US Open: Halep Upset, Giving Romanian Newsman His Headline

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.

Mirjana Lucic-Baroni is stunned by her victory over #2 seed Simona Halep. She's through to the 4th round of a Slam for the first time in her 17-year career.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!"

ISimona Halep's bags are packed for China, as the WTA tour heads east to Asia.t 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 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.

A welcome task for former teen phenom Lucic-Baroni: signing balls for adoring fans courtside at Grandstand.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."



Indian Wells: Halep Edges Bouchard

Canadian Eugenie Bouchard looked like she didn't want to be playing when her third round match began against Romanian Simona Halep.  She had a sour look on her face, one that her coach, Nick Saviano, sought to wipe away.

Halep wallops a fearhand. She and Bouchard are seen as up and comers on the WTA tour. Photo courtesy SteveGTennis.

"If you want to be great, you have to fight for every point," he told her after Halep did a beat down on the Australian Open semi-finalist, 6-2, in the first set.  He told her to get her head out of her ass and into the court by moving her feet, showing more intensity and exploding up to the ball in her serve.  

Well, Saviano said everything except the "head out of the ass" part.  That's what I was shouting at the TV set as I watched.

The pep talk worked.  Bouchard tightened up her game.   She made just 7 unforced errors compared to 12 for Halep, and took control of the second set, 6-1.

But all the pep talks in the world -- and Saviano gave several -- couldn't get Bouchard a round closer to claiming her first tour title.  Halep, who's collected seven in the last nine months, oozed confidence and calm. She rallied from a break down in the third to win the last three games and the match, 6-2, 1-6, 6-4.

"I was a little nervous in the second set, and she's a very fast girl," she told Tennis Channel.  "I fought for every point."

Sounds like she overheard Saviano's tips for Eugenie.

"I play well now with difficult tennis," Halep said of her recent success.  She hit the top 20 last August, and the top 10 in January.

I found some Tennis Hate advice from Halep.  She told you have to "take pleasure from the game."

I’ve had those experiences when I can’t move my body or hit the ball, and that’s because I’m too stressed. Just try to enjoy it, and don’t think about the results. If you’re more relaxed on court, you can play your best tennis. So try to have fun, and just focus on playing the next point. That way, you’ll be able to take pleasure from your tennis.

I wouldn't have thought to use pleasure and tennis in the same sentence. 

Neither would Rafael Nadal, perhaps, after the world number one and defending champion fell 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) to Alexandr Dolgopolov of Ukraine. Dolgo beat Nadal even though he had more errors (49) than winners (36) and got just 40 percent of his first serves in. Nadal's first service percentage was 63.  Go figure.

Alexandr Dolgopolov is now 1-5 against Rafael Nadal. Photo courtesy of Getty.

"Today was an accident," Nadal said.   

Earlier this year, he beat Dolgopolov in straight sets to win the title in Rio.  He picked up his 62nd ATP tour title in Doha.  This, and his loss to Stan Wawrinka in the Australian Open final, were his only defeats this season.  

He smiled away questions about his back, which seized up in Melbourne.

“Forget about the back. I don't want to talk about the back anymore because my back is fine. The bad feelings were with my forehand and backhand," he said.

Early exit for the defending champ, who insists his back is not the issue. Photo courtesy of Getty.Dolgopolov, meanwhile, had Nadal at 5-2 in the third and was serving for the match when a 500-pound gorilla climbed onto his back.  Tennis Hate strangled his whiplike service motion.  He couldn't get a first serve in.  He lost the game at love.  Nadal stormed through three games in a row to tie it at 5-5.  Both held serve to bring it to a tiebreak.  Nadal got the early lead at 5-2, but hit balls long, including a gimme volley at net, and Dolgopolov had match point on his racquet.

He thought he won it with an ace, but an electronic review showed it a smidge wide.  I wondered about that invisible gorilla.  Was it tugging on Alex' ponytail?  Wrapping a fat old paw around his serving shoulder? Fogging up Dolgo's focus with his banana breath?

Dolgopolov elbowed the beast away and won with a flourish, snapping one of his signature flat backhands crosscourt for a winner that zoomed just out of the reach of the ever-efforting Nadal.  Dolgo shook his head in disbelief.  It was his first-ever win against Rafa.

 "I think I found some smallpoints, in the middle of the point," he told Tennis Channel.  In previous matches, he said, Nadal pushed him off the court.  "I just tried to turn off my head and go for the shots...find a good shot to risk and go for it."

He gets Italian Fabio Fognini in the fourth round.  Simona Halep faces qualifier Casey Dellaqua of Australia, who won in a walkover of Lauren Davis.  The American got food poisoning and withdrew.