WIMBLEDON — If Wimbledon kept data on impossible-to-make shots, Su-Wei Hsieh would dominate the stat. Throughout her shocking third-round upset of world No. 1 Simona Halep, Hsieh employed an endless carousel of did-you-just-see-that?! moves and, in the end, out-Haleped one of the most aggressive baseline defenders in the game.
“I know she is going to fight really hard, so I know I need to try to be stronger than normal mentally,” Hsieh said after the match. “I just want to feel free and enjoy the match.”
The latest in a string of unseeded players whose stunning Wimbledon upsets are sending Wikipedia servers into overdrive, Hsieh (pronounced “Sh-eh”) is virtually unknown to the casual tennis fan. But her unique playing style — which even she has a hard time describing and instead labels simply, “Su-Wei style” — has been confounding opponents for years. A former world No. 1 in doubles and the 2013 Wimbledon doubles champ, the 32-year-old is the first Taiwanese player, male or female, to break into the top 25 in the singles rankings and the first to hold the top ranking in doubles. She’s currently the 48th-ranked singles player in the world and on Monday will play in the second week of singles at Wimbledon for the first time in her career.
“I just try to enjoy the tennis and enjoy the city, enjoy the food,” said Hsieh, who is traveling in London with her family and boyfriend, whose support she said provides her with an added feeling of calm on tour. “I feel I’m really lucky to be a tennis player, stay here until the second week. I’m very, very grateful and thankful about all this.”
Hsieh’s 3-6, 6-4, 7-5 win over Halep is her first over a No. 1 seed, but it’s not her first takedown of a top-10 favorite. Earlier this year, she dispatched No. 3 Garbine Muguruza from the Australian Open and last June, she beat No. 8 Joanna Konta in the first round at the French. Now she adds a victory over the top player in the world to that list, and on the surface that’s perhaps most suited to her quirky style of play. As difficult as it is to describe, Halep said it’s even tougher to prepare to play.
“She’s mixing the rhythm, she’s playing everything. It was really hard on a grass court to do better,” Halep said. “The ball is not bouncing two times in a row the same. It’s really tough to stay low, to play every ball, to expect nothing because you never know where the ball is bouncing and where it is coming. It’s always a big challenge to play on grass, but the difficulty was bigger today because of her game.”
Hsieh’s nearly two-and-a-half-hour match against Halep Saturday was one of the most entertaining thrillers of the first week at All England. Halep uses every muscle in her 5-foot-5, 135-pound body to power through every shot, her athleticism and reach at the baseline a signature key to her game. But Hsieh’s stretch was even more superb and her off-tempo shots so flat it looked impossible they would clear the net. When they did, they often fell just beyond the reach of Halep’s outstretched forehand.
While it’s Halep who typically sets her opponents off rhythm with crafty winners that just kiss the line, Hsieh, herself just 5-foot-5 and 125 pounds, chased down every shot like a golden retriever chases, well, tennis balls and used a patternless mix of dropshots, slices and two-handed forehand winners to force Halep into mistakes. Unlike many of her top-seeded peers who have departed this week, Halep didn’t melt down. She threw everything she had at Hsieh, and was simply outplayed.
“I had 5-2 in the third set. I had match point,” Halep said. “It just didn’t go my way today. She deserved to win.”
At that point in the match — down 5-2 in the third — it looked as if Hsieh’s comeback from a set down would swiftly end. But she was never rattled. “Down 5-2, against this big player on the big court, you could get smashed,” Hsieh said. “I just try to run as much as I can, try to catch every ball. She hits everything close to the line. I had to run and fight for every point. If I don’t fight, I don’t get through.” Unbelievably, Hsieh took the final five games of the set.
But of all the remarkable moves in her playbook, her craftiest came just before her final serve.
Up 6-5 but down two break points in the final game, Hsieh climbed back to win three straight points and was serving for the match. The crowd, as it had throughout the final few games of the match, erupted and was shushed by the chair umpire. When Hsieh faulted on her first serve, the crowd let go an audible, “Ahhhhh!”
In that moment Hsieh thought back to a fourth-round match against Lucie Safarova at Nottingham last year, which she lost in a third-set tiebreak. “I have two match points,” she said of that match. “I make double-fault. Then one match point, make double-fault again. So today when I have a fault. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, [this is] not going to happen again.”
Instead of rushing her second serve, Hseih stepped away from the line, looked into the stands and motioned to the crowd like a cheerleader before a big fourth down, begging them to lend her their energy. She mimicked the move again in her post-match press conference, which, for the record, is perhaps the only thing more entertaining than a Su-Wei Hsieh match.
“Okay, now I feel more relaxed,” Hsieh said of her mindset before that final serve, which Halep returned into the net. (It’s worth noting that the diminutive Hsieh served at an average speed of 82 mph.) At the realization she’d won the match, Hsieh let go a scream, and then a steady stream of tears. Later, when asked what she thought of the crowd’s reaction to her request before her final serve, she said simply, “It helped a lot.”
The understatement of the year from a woman who enters the final week of play at All England no longer under the radar.