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.

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