Sometimes certain players are just a bad matchup for you, regardless of their form or ranking. This theory became all too clear for Simona Halep as for the second time in three Grand Slams, she was ousted by Mirjana Lucic-Baroni at the French Open.
Halep was coming into the second Grand Slam of the year in some pretty good form. After making two semi final appearances in Stuttgart and Rome, the third seed was one of the favourites to go all the way, given her runner-up performance last year. However, a lack of confidence showed in her opening round match, where she got the better of Evgeniya Rodina in two tight sets. That victory set up an intriguing second round clash between Halep and Lucic-Baroni — a rematch of their meeting at the 2014 U.S. Open where the Croat ousted the Romanian in straight sets. Despite being the favourite on paper, Halep’s form in her opener wasn’t as convincing as she would have liked, and she would be vulnerable against a big-hitting Lucic-Baroni.
Lucic-Baroni on the other hand, was coming in with little to no confidence. The Croatian number two came into Roland Garros with an 8-13 record, and at one point, she was on a twelve match losing streak. Just a week prior, the 33-year-old squandered a 6-4, 5-0 lead against WTA rising star Madison Keys in Strasbourg, eventually losing the match 4-6, 7-6(3), 7-6(0). That defeat was the perfect representation of how her season was going; she was at her best at one point or another, but her form began to decline as the match/season progressed. After defeating Lauren Davis in her opener, Lucic-Baroni knew the secret formula to her success against Halep, and was ready to get another big win under her belt.
The opening set could have gone either way. Lucic-Baroni always found herself in front by a break, but Halep came back with a vengeance. Ultimately, it looked like the set would have to be decided in a tiebreak but the world number 70 spotted a chink in her opponent’s armour and she went for it, breaking at 6-5 to take the opening set 7-5. From there, the Croat went on a tear, overpowering Halep from the back of the court to go up a seemingly insurmountable set and 5-0 lead. The world number three was not prepared to go down without a fight however, and held to get on the board. But unlike in her nightmarish loss to Keys in Strasbourg a week prior, Lucic-Baroni closed out the match at the first time of asking, sealing a 7-5, 6-1 victory with an ace out wide.
En route to her straight sets victory, the 33-year-old hit 29 winners, almost six times as many as a seemingly out of sorts Halep’s five.
"It's incredible," Lucic-Baroni said shortly after. "Simona is such a great champion, and I respect her so much, and to play this well on such a big stadium makes me so happy."
"She's such a great champion so I knew if I wanted to win I had to go for my shots, and that's my game anyway, so I just tried to keep going for it and tried to keep my unforced errors down, as well."
"I was going to have to play a great match again and back up sort of what I did at the U.S. Open. Because sometimes people say, 'Oh, it's one day everything went in,' and I don't look at it like that. I know I played really well. I have been working really hard, and I knew today I had to play some great tennis. I was ready for it."
"I'm so proud of myself. It's such a huge win for me - it's just amazing!"
"She played well," Halep said. "I couldn't play my best today, but she started to hit the ball very strong at the beginning of the match, and she was better than me today."
"I couldn't feel that I'm prepared 100% to play on clay court, but I have to accept this. I have to take day by day. I worked a lot. Maybe too much. That's why I was contracted and I couldn't play. I couldn't feel the game."
"I just have to go forward."