Ode to tennis: 3hr 44min of pain, sweat and running

Lauren Davis of the US falls during their women's singles third round match against Romania's Simona Halep on day six of the Australian Open in Melbourne on Jan 20. PHOTO: AFP

MELBOURNE - In the end, tough is an inadequate description for them, epic appears too mild and athletic sounds like understatement. Their third set took 142 minutes, it involved 32 rallies of 10 shots or more, it included a medical timeout, more gasps than at a Cirque du Soleil show and a display of mind over exhausted body.

In the end, one player's infected toenail was coming off and the other felt "almost dead" and couldn't feel her ankle.

"I left all I had out there," said Lauren Davis, whose father, a cardiologist, probably knows his child has a strong heart.

"I gave everything I had today," said Simona Halep, who has been on painkillers after a twisted ankle in the first round. It was a miracle they could talk at all after three hours and 44 minutes of sparring.

In the end, Halep, leaning on experience, won 4-6, 6-4, 15-13, saving three consecutive match points at 10-11 and serving out the match only on her fourth attempt and dancing on a tightrope between catastrophe and champion.

Once a mentally uncertain player, Halep insists she is a tougher, more resistant athlete and said with an impeccable honesty: "I think in the past I wouldn't have fought that hard. Maybe when she had the match balls, maybe I would have lost it." This time she fought and earned the hot chocolate she craved.

In the end it was a paean to fitness and fleet-footedness and a sweaty hymn in praise of small players everywhere. In an Amazonian age the game also belongs to the diminutive and in a muscular world here were two players moving like a sharp breeze across the baseline. Little girls everywhere need all sizes of role models.

Davis said she "always looked up to" Halep, and this is a case of the literal (the American is a mere 1.57m, the Romanian 1.68m) and the figurative. "She's super agile and dynamic around the court," Davis said. "That's exactly how I play." Halep merely smiled and replied: "Finally I had a shorter opponent than me."

Both women should be sponsored by battery companies: They never run out of effort. Neither has an imposing serve - four aces and two service winners between them in 303 points - and so breaks were numerous (nine in the third set itself) and miles had to be run.

Both were also involved, as tennis players often are, in multiple ventures all at once: proving their tennis superiority to each other and proving they were changed people to themselves.

Davis, like many players, can be over-critical of herself and took us on a brief journey into the tennis player's brain: "We look at failure as a negative, and say you miss a shot by an inch and you do everything right. A lot of people consider that as a failure. But looking at it, like you did everything right for the most part, it's all about changing the way to see things and changing your perspective."

Certainly she, soaked in aggression and hitting short backhands cross-court with a poetic precision, changed the way we see her, for she did not look 75 ranking places, almost US$19 million (S$25 million) of prize money and 15 titles fewer than Halep. For a single, sublime day she was almost as good as the best player in the world.

In the end, the match was an ode to tennis. What we mostly want, it had: no talk of heat, no tantrum, nothing but drama, rallies, speed, angle, honesty, compliments, guts and a third set where both women forgot tactics, match-plans, over-thinking and just dug deep, responding to some primitive and beautiful instinct to survive.

"I got to the point where I was so tired where I just told myself to swing and move," said Davis. Added Halep of the three match points she faced: "You just go there and hit like without thinking."

Davis left with no recrimination but only a "ton of positives". Halep stays with a damaged ankle and an intact sense of humour. Asked about her thoughts on her next match, she said lightly: "You still want me think about tennis now?"

Then she smiled and, as always, she answered. In the end, this was a fitting advertisement for a sport. A world No. 1 who hadn't run out of gas or of grace.

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