Sporting Life

Footwork and fitness make Halep a well-balanced threat

In a game of hands, Simona Halep often wins points with her feet. To hit a shot perfectly, first you have to get to it in time and somehow she is almost always there. It is worth checking her shoes for wheels for she has turned locomotion into an art.

It didn't matter that Caroline Garcia was on an 11-match winning streak yesterday, because Halep simply scampered past her 6-4, 6-2. The Romanian wore the Frenchwoman down with her strings, her smarts and her sneakers.

At the player party the other night, Halep was wearing a dress with "Equality" written on it. "I like the word," she said, but in truth sport is rarely about parity. Serena Williams has a finer talent, Karolina Pliskova has more inches but Halep has superior footwork. She is the shortest player in the WTA Finals field and thus she needs to be the snappiest. It is up to her to outmanoeuvre the field and outrun it.

Whether it's the All Blacks running in a fast, flowing line or badminton players hustling backwards or footballers feinting, footwork at its best elevates sport and makes it look like a dance.

Skill at pace is bewitching. Control at speed is mesmerising. Every coach preaches its virtues and on the Internet there are even quotes from Bruce Lee and Homer about footwork. But since neither can be confirmed we'll settle for the wisdom of two former world No. 1s on the subject.

Lindsay Davenport, who views Halep as the "best mover", said that great footwork is not just about being fast, "it's about being efficient". Martina Navratilova, whose athleticism was unforgettable, said: "I love the way Simona moves. Her footwork is just immaculate. She is very light on her feet. It's a joy to watch, the way she sets up for her shots."

Balance matters. An explosive first step is significant. Anticipation counts. Great athletes are oracles of a sort, for they can divine where the ball is going to be and if you listen to Garcia, it's clear that Halep knows the immediate future.

Sometimes the joy of Halep on court is to watch only her feet. She's not as elegant as the footballer Marco van Basten who was once compared to a ballet dancer, but she bears a resemblance to boxers. On her toes, bouncing, ready, gone.

Said the Frenchwoman yesterday: "She reads the game very well and she's pretty fast on her footwork and covering the court very well. Sometimes she's far from the baseline, but she knows how to get the ball a little bit faster and she use very well the ball of the opponent."

Sometimes the joy of Halep on court is to watch only her feet. She's not as elegant as the footballer Marco van Basten, who was once compared to a ballet dancer, but she bears a resemblance to boxers. On her toes, bouncing, ready, gone.

Garcia yesterday had an average shot speed of 114.1kmh and Halep's was 108.7kmh. Nothing comes easy to her. No easy power, no easy points, no easy holds. She has to scrap and battle, she has to scuttle and scamper, and yesterday even she said she did it well.

Asked about her footwork, she said: "It's really important, and today I (was) really strong on the legs. I stayed very low because she's hitting pretty flat and the ball here on this court doesn't jump too much. And also, I was running very well."

In a sporting world that's besotted with strength, sometimes the under-powered are offered a little justice. This court surface is almost lethargic and it suits retrievers like Halep for it offers her an extra fraction of a second to hunt down balls and elongate rallies. As Garcia confirmed: "I think the surface here is a little bit slower than it was in China. So she always makes the other one play another ball. She makes you work a lot."

That's only fair because "work" is what defines Halep. Her endeavour is evident in every sweaty stride and it is why she drew the crowd's appreciation on Monday night. They know who she is and they understand she can only win if she gives everything of herself. Heart and also sole.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2017, with the headline 'Footwork and fitness make Halep a well-balanced threat'. Print Edition | Subscribe