As Andy Murray continues his grass-court training block, in the hope of making his long-awaited comeback this summer, he will surely have kept an eye on Roland Garros this weekend. And particularly on Simona Halep’s maiden grand-slam title.
There are several points of comparison here, starting with the multiple major finals that both players appeared in before finally landing their first trophy: three in Halep’s case, four in Murray’s. More strikingly, though, they both used the same psychologist to address their internal conflicts: Alexis Castorri.
Castorri’s first professional encounter with tennis came in 1985, when she prescribed Ivan Lendl a programme of aerobics, “Jazzercise” and yoga. Seven months later Lendl beat John McEnroe in the US Open final, in what he still considers to be his greatest performance.
Since then, Castorri has struck up strong relationships with Murray – whom she once suggested was in danger of losing his “zest” after repeated setbacks – and more recently with Kevin Anderson. It is no coincidence that Anderson reached last year’s US Open final after Castorri had encouraged him to practise his fist-pumps and “Come on” shouts in front of a mirror.
Castori lives in Fort Lauderdale, near Miami, and is part of a web of Floridian tennis connections. Remember that Lendl was introduced to Murray in 2011 by Halep’s coach Darren Cahill, and also plays golf with Anderson, a South African expat.
After Halep’s superb 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 defeat of Sloane Stephens on Saturday, Cahill spoke about the importance of psychology in modern tennis. “The sport in general has changed a lot in the last 15 or 20 years because of social media, the money, the pressures,” he said. “Every player has a minibus full of people travelling around. So that pressure around the player is much more than it ever used to be.
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“Alexis has been really important for Simona the last couple of years. In my era as a player [the late 1980s], maybe admitting to that was a bit of a weakness. You had to suck it up and be tough. Now I think players are turning over every stone and making sure they are professional.”
A robust mental approach was essential for Halep on Saturday, especially Stephens had opened up by playing near-flawless tennis. Trailing 6-3, 2-0 at one stage, Halep could so easily have disappeared into a fug of negativity. Instead she began to hit with more loop and spin, pushing Stephens deeper behind the baseline and then darting forward to finish points at the net.
“It’s not easy sitting there because you can’t do anything,” said a delighted Cahill afterwards. “You hope that she can go out there with a good game plan and then if it doesn’t work, adjust a little bit and throw some different things at her opponent. She did that today, she took a bit of pace off the ball, mixed it up and stayed in the rallies a little bit longer.
“Credit to Simona for working it out, hanging in there,” added Cahill. “In the last couple of years she has been kicked in the stomach a couple of times when she’s had chances. They say the destination is more beautiful [as a result]. It was a bit of a bumpy road but this is a magical moment for her and she did it the hard way against a great opponent.”
So what can we expect from Halep at Wimbledon? It usually takes a little while for a player, even a world No. 1, to settle back down after such a long-awaited triumph. But Halep’s experienced manager Ion Tiriac – a Romanian compatriot who also steered the career of Boris Becker among many others – suggested on Saturday that anything could happen.
“She is capable of losing in the first round and she is capable of winning it,” said Tiriac of Halep, a hugely popular figure whose success on Saturday inspired tweets of congratulation from Petra Kvitova, Johanna Konta and many others. “She often played badly here and she still won. A big part of her is that she will die on the court if she has to, a bit like Rafael Nadal.
“[At Wimbledon] she needs to stand a metre inside the baseline and hit it. Her low centre of gravity will help on grass. She is one metre 65 [5ft 5in] and doesn’t have a big serve but she has everything else. She can be too emotional but she has a huge heart, she is a very good person. I am so happy that she won, as happy as she is.”