So, it's the morning after the night before (but not if you're in Australia or Asia) ...
How are you all feeling?
I went to bed last night still thinking about the match (well, it was so bad!) and one thing struck me which I think probably starts to explain Simona's performance. More of that in a bit, first to address 3 things that I don't think explain it.
It's natural even for top sportsmen/women to get very nervous before a match but most know how to handle nerves so they're not debilitating. Then once they're in the 'white hot heat' of competition, nerves pretty quickly disappear because they're focusing on their game instead. For tennis players, I imagine these nerves could last up to 3 or 4 games, but certainly not the 12 games that it took Simona to get going last night. Add in that Simona seems pretty level-headed and we know she's mentally tough (you don't win 45 of 53 matches without being so). So, I think that, no, nerves were very probably not responsible.
Madison Keys is too powerful
Others in GM have suggested Simona can't handle hard hitters. However, the evidence from last year throws that idea firmly in the bin. She's normally very good defensively and has a clever game to stretch powerful players as her wins against the likes of Kvitova, Stosur, Jankovic & others demonstrate. On a normal day Simona would have had no problem with Madison's game and would have beat her comfortably just as she did to so many players of Madison's level last year. Conclusion: power had nothing to with it!
Weight of expectation
Sure, this can affect a player's performance but can it do so to the massive extent that we saw last night? It was such a huge drop-off in level from her best level that I don't think this can explain it. Where would she be feeling such huge expectation from? Perhaps some from herself but surely not from her team or family and she's probably very sensible about what she reads in the press. (I'm pretty sure too that she doesn't read us on TF
Ok, on to my big idea
that I think does help to explain it ...
I don't remember her during the match doing the normal things she does to gee herself up after a bad point. I might be wrong but I don't think so - the match isn't on Youtube yet to rewatch and I'm not sure I want to!
The commentators on BT Sport also noticed that she seemed listless and asked, "Where's the passion?".
We're used to the sight and sound of her getting a bit annoyed with herself after she has mishit a shot - things like gesturing with her arms to where she should have put the ball, doing a small gesture with the racket in the direction she should have hit it, and talking to herself (sometimes quite loudly) as if she was coaching herself. Now, that itself is not a reason for the drop-off in performance but it does indicate strongly to me that she came on to the court knowing/understanding that she wasn't going to perform well.
By the way, I think she was still some way below her best level in those 4 games she won in the 2nd set. It was just Keys dropping off quite badly that allowed Simona back in.
Why did she come on court knowing/understanding that she wasn't going to perform well? As I see it, it could be one of a number of things making her think this. Perhaps it's one of the following possibilities I can think of:
Maybe she was ill the night before (perhaps a stomach bug or similar?) and so she was feeling physically weak and lacking sleep? In that case, why not withdraw? Perhaps she thought it was worth giving the match a go in case Keys wasn't on her best form and she still might be able to snatch a win. She would then have 2 days before her R2 match to try to fully recover.
Late start to training for the new season due to finishing last season late?
Maybe it's just she is a week or so behind in her preparation for this new season and she knew that she wasn't quite ready? Perhaps a full week of training & practice with a couple of doubles matches could get her back in form for the AO?
Perhaps she had a recent off-season injury that we don't know about and this might have affected her preparation badly? I know she was photographed practicing on the Sydney courts but say if she has only resumed training and practice in the last few days (after an injury lasting say 2 weeks) then it is understandable that she will not be near full fitness and will be rusty with her technique. She would be very aware of how far from fitness and match-readiness she is.
But ... could this make her as bad as she was last night? I'm not totally convinced by the possibility of a recent injury being responsible.
Receiving bad news?
Perhaps she recently received some bad news about a family member or friend? This could have affected her badly in her recent training, practice & preparation. Perhaps she only received the news the night before the match? That could totally derail your ability to perform if your head is somewhere else. Suddenly tennis becomes much less important and, being an intelligent girl, Simona would know it would be likely to affect her performance badly.
Of course, we won't know unless Simona tells the media but if I am correct in assuming she knew she wasn't going to perform well, then the chances are good that she knows how to correct it by next week or it may be something that corrects itself quickly (like a stomach bug could).
Just let's hope in just over 7 days we will be saying, "Wow, what a difference a week makes!", and last night's shocker will be forgotten.