How Darren Cahill helped Simona Halep overcome mental fragility
Coach Darren Cahill’s lessons stood Simona Haelp in good stead in the crucial moments of the 2018 French Open final as she overcame Sloane Stephens
A sense of déjà vu would have gripped Simona Halep as she trailed a set and 2-0 to Sloane Stephens in the 2018 French Open final. It was the fourth time she had made the final of a Grand Slam—and she was staring at another defeat.
In the 2014 French Open final, she had lost to Maria Sharapova in three tightly contested sets. In 2017, she lost to the unseeded Jelena Ostapenko after leading a set and 3-0 as the Latvian came back to record a famous win. Seeded No.1 for the 2018 Australian Open, Halep lost her third Grand Slam final in another three-set marathon to a resurgent Caroline Wozniacki.
Given her history of succumbing in finals, it wouldn’t have come as a surprise if Halep had lost her fourth final to Stephens. However, she went on to win four straight games to win the second set 6-4, followed by a 6-1 win in the third set to seal her first Grand Slam title.
Past results vs impact on future: Halep acknowledged a sense of déjà vu when she was trailing the American. “In the last game, I felt I could not breathe any more,” she said. “I just did not want to repeat what happened last year. I am really thankful this has happened in Paris, my special city.”
“When you are in an act, your entire focus should be on that,” says Nikhil Sharma, founder and CEO of zlait Sports Management. “You need to concentrate on the task at hand and shouldn’t think too far ahead. But, at the same time, memories of past performances help us prepare for similar opportunities in the future,” he adds.
Halep’s first major stride in tennis was her 2008 French Open Juniors victory. In 2009, the Romanian had to undergo breast reduction surgery to prolong her career. The surgery paid dividends—she went on to become only the second woman from Romania to win a singles Grand Slam.
Mental strength is paramount: In 2015, Halep began consulting Darren Cahill, who had coached tennis legends Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi. In 2016, he became her full-time coach. But major success continued to elude Halep that year.
In March 2017, matters came to a head in her quarter-final tie in the Miami Open against Johanna Konta, when she asked for a coaching time-out as Konta took a washroom break. Cahill pointed out previous instances of mental fragility and told her to seize the opportunity. When she suffered another defeat, he quit.
In an interview a few months later, Cahill said: “It was hard but it was needed. I would have been doing her a disservice if I just patted her on the back and walked away and said, ‘No worries, we’ll pick things up next week.’ Because it was holding her back, so I felt like it was just me doing my job. Regardless of whether it cost me my position as a coach, it was better for her in the long run to understand what she was doing on the court and become better from it.”
Sharma says mental strength determines success in life. “Physical ability is at the base of any pursuit, then come the technical skills and practical ability that includes planning a task, but at the highest level is mental ability. It helps you analyse different situations and plan a way out of a difficulty,” he says.
“At certain times, you are so bogged down by things that even when you have all the resources, the results are not satisfactory. In those times, your mental toughness instructs whether you walk away or analyse and overcome the difficulties at hand,” he adds.
Halep took the criticism on board, impressing Cahill, who rejoined her at the French Open in 2017.
Cahill’s lessons stood her in good stead in the crucial moments against Stephens. Aided by the Romanian trio of childhood idol and fellow Constanta native Andrei Pavel, Fed Cup captain Ilie Năstase, and former tennis player Ion Taric, her agent, Halep seems poised for greater success.
Coaching a Star is a series that looks at ideas from the coaches of tennis champions and the lessons managers can draw from these.
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