Grand Slam at last for Simona Halep
The Romanian world No 1 finally achieved her dream: to get a Grand Slam title under her belt
WINNING has never been a problem for Simona Halep. After all, you don’t get to the No 1 spot in world tennis by losing tournaments. But the Holy Grail of the sport, a Grand Slam title, had always eluded her. “A Grand Slam is the only thing I want to touch,” the 26-year-old Romanian told an interviewer earlier this year.
And that dream finally came true for Simona with a hard-fought victory in the recent French Open.
She cemented her status as the world’s best female player when she beat 25-yearold American Sloane Stephens to finally lay claim to her first Grand Slam.
“I’ve been dreaming of this moment since I was 14,” she gushed afterwards. “It’s real now!”
She’s come agonisingly close in recent years, reaching the finals of three major Grand Slam tournaments only to have victory snatched away.
In 2014 she lost narrowly to Maria Sharapova at Roland-Garros, with the Russian calling their match “the toughest Grand Slam final I’ve ever played”.
In last year’s French final she was pipped to the post again – this time by 20-year-old Latvian powerhouse Jelena Ostapenko.
Then in January she got another chance when she reached the finals of the Australian Open – but despite playing her heart out she lost to current world No 2, Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki.
She later revealed she suffered from severe foot pain throughout the match. But she was gracious in defeat, saying at the time, “I can still smile. It’s fine. I cried, but now I’m smiling.”
SIMONA isn’t the only player to have lost several times in the last leg of a Grand Slam final before going on to clinch the title – Kim Clijsters of Belgium and American Chris Evert did it too. After her third straight loss in a major final a reporter asked Simona if it helped to know this. She replied, “Maybe the fourth one will be with luck.” Turns out, it was. As the crowd chanted her name she fought back from a set and a break to beat 10th seed Sloane 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 in a gruelling nailbiter full of grunts, groans and gasps.
“In the last game I felt like I couldn’t breathe anymore,” she said. “But I believed and I never gave up.”
When she won and the crowd rose to their feet, she tearfully climbed into the stand to celebrate with her family and coaching team.
High up in the commentary box former world No 1 Chris Evert (63) was seen wiping away a tear. Chris, herself a seven-time winner at Roland-Garros, later heaped praise on the new champ.
“This lady fights her heart out. She runs down balls like no other, shows emotion like no other and has had so many disappointments in majors. And now this victory wipes out the past and is so much sweeter.”
Halep is the first Romanian woman to win a French Open title since her manager and long-time mentor, Virginia Ruzici, won it in 1978.
The 1,68m athlete later said the fact she didn’t give up “even after last year’s loss means I’m strong inside and I do this just because I love the sport. I’ve learnt in these 12 months that if you don’t give up you’re able to do anything.”
A love of sport runs in her family. Simona was born in the historic Romanian
city of Constanta to Stere, a former soccer player-turned dairy factory owner, and Tania Halep.
She started playing tennis at age four, inspired by her older brother, Nicolae.
“I was going with my parents to take my brother to training. I took the racket and started playing. From that moment the racket stuck to my hand.”
By six she was practising daily and it was clear she was a giant talent. She moved to Bucharest to further her career and quickly moved up the ranks.
In 2008, aged 16, she won the French Open girls’ title where she was noticed by Ruzici, who took her under her wing.
She took a break the following year to recover from breast-reduction surgery that took her from a 34DD to a 34C.
In an interview with the New York Post she explained her breasts made her “uncomfortable” on the court. “It’s the weight that troubles me,” she said. “My ability to react quickly was made worse.”
Describing her style of play as “an aggressive baseliner”, Simona says she’s modelled her game on her idol, seventime Grand Slam champion Justine Henin of Belgium.
Henin, who retired in 2011, has nothing but praise for Simona. “She has an intelligent game. There’s a little something that reminds me of myself . . . it’s offensive and aggressive.”
HER warm personality has endeared Simona to the public and fellow players. In 2015 she was named most popular player of the year by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and in 2017 she clinched the fan favourite singles player of the year.
Her world No 1 status is largely due to consistent performances at all the majors over the past year.
But it was never enough. “I’ve always said if you’re No 1 without a Grand Slam, you’re not a real No 1,” she told reporters after the French Open. “Now that I was able to win, it makes it special.”
Her coach, Darren Cahill, whom she hired in 2015, has been instrumental in helping her achieve her dream.
The 52-year-old Australian is one of the world’s most respected coaches and has steered the likes of Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi to world greatness. Simona is the first female player he’s taken on.
“She’s grown up a lot in the past 12 months,” Cahill said after her win. “Sometimes the losses make you mature really quickly. You can go one way with your career, and go downwards, or you can suck it up, work a little harder and try again. That’s the way she went.”
Simona, who’s fiercely private about her personal life, has been linked to former Romanian tennis player Radu Barbu (28). The pair were spotted holidaying in Italy in November last year but neither have spoken publicly about their relationship.
Maybe they’ll spend time together in the mini-break she’s taking before Wimbledon.
She feels drained after her recent win, Simona says, and is taking two weeks off before she shifts her focus to the grass season. “I feel tired but it’s a good tired. So I’ll embrace it and enjoy it. My holiday looks boring, just chilling, sleeping and eating.”
FAR LEFT, MIDDLE and LEFT: An emotional Simona Halep celebrates her first Grand Slam victory, ending it with a tearful embrace with coach Darren Cahill at the French Open final. RIGHT: The tennis star posted this Instagram snap of a congratulatory gesture she received at a restaurant. LEFT: Simona shows off her trophy during the champion photocall soon after her big win at Roland-Garros.
2014 2017 FAR LEFT: At the 2018 Australian Open she lost to Caroline Wozniacki. MIDDLE: The 2014 French Open where she lost to Maria Sharapova. LEFT: She lost the 2017 French Open to Jelena Ostapenko.