When Simona Halep had to accept defeat in her second Grand Slam final one year ago, she did it graciously: congratulating her opponent, thanking her team and vowing to carry on trying. “Maybe I wasn’t ready,”the runner-up stated, with a half-smile.
A few moments afterwards however, the waves of disappointment kept crashing onto the Romanian as she sat in press. Halep was in command over the finals last year, leading 6:3 3:0 but the heavy favourite blinked for a short time in the second set and allowed Jelena Ostapenko to come blazing back into the match. The Latvian sensationally stormed to the title and Halep initially struggled to come to terms with the loss.
“This one hurts a lot maybe because I am more — I realise more what is happening. Three years ago was something new. It hurts a lot and I need time just to — I don't know,” Halep said, moving her hands as if to push herself further from of the interview desk ”.... to go away.”
Halep’s heartbreak was palpable and it wasn’t going to be the last time in 2017 that the Romanian would have to put the pieces back together after a shattering defeat, coming so close and yet so far to the No 1 ranking.
A year later, the Romanian, now No 1 in the world, is back in position to play for the title at her favourite Grand Slam: 40 years after her mentor Virginia Ruzici won Paris, 10 years after she captured the Junior title at the Bois De Boulogne.
It hasn’t been an easy ride to the finals for Halep — a slow start in her opening match against American Alison Riske rang early alarm bells but since the 26 year old has worked her way into the tournament. A tricky quarter-final against Angelique Kerber was followed by a stunning victory over an in-form Garbine Muguruza — Halep has rarely ever looked more convincing at the French Open than during Thursday’s semi-final.
“I'm really happy that I could beat a player like Muguruza. She's a great opponent, a great player. And it's always tough against her,” Halep explained, sounding and looking relaxed.
Over the course of the tournament, the Romanian has been openly talking about nerves, trying to embrace them and seeing the sunnier side of life at the French Open.
“I think the nerves are really good. It means that you care about what you are doing and your desire is really big. So I love that I'm still playing, I love that I'm in this situation,” the 2017 runner-up said after her first round win.
In Melbourne, Halep had suffered another heartbreaker, losing to Caroline Wozniacki in her third Slam finals. Mentally the Romanian said she was ready — but her body had let her down, with the effects of many long matches and an early ankle injury taking a toll. Halep was hospitalised for dehydration after the match; she had given it her all and came agonisingly close once again.
But something seems to have clicked since or maybe during Melbourne. Halep’s herculean efforts to fight past injury and tough opponents seems to have made her try and change her approach a little. The eyes are on the trophy but mentally the Romanian seems to try and prepare herself for whatever result comes.
“It's a big opportunity, it's a big chance, but you never know. So I lost three times until now and no one died,” the 26-year-old deadpanned on Thursday, before adding with a smile. “So it will be ok!”
“But I will be, I think, more confident, because I have a lot of experience. But in tennis, you never know, so I will stay chill.”
The word “chill” has been one that runs like a red thread through many of Halep’s press conferences in Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome this spring. The 26-year-old has been giving off a more relaxed vibe and saying that she is trying to take things easier: However, it’s a concept that usually doesn’t come naturally to the World No 1 — which marks a noted difference to her opponent in Saturday’s final: Sloane Stephens. Halep is a perfectionist and had found a way how to do things when they are not going perfectly; both on and off the court at Slams.
“I think it's really important, and so many years I played at this level. Now it feels normal little bit. Feels like I'm used to it,” the Romanian explained when it comes to the balance between “chill” and “intense” at the big events.
Like so many other things, it has been a learning process for Halep, especially in the past twelve months and some of the biggest lessons have come through some of the toughest losses: to enjoy herself more, not to be too down on herself, not to let the pressure or the occasion get to her.
“So we will see what is going to happen — but I just want to be smiling on court,” Halep said with warmth in her voice.
When she faces Sloane Stephens in the women’s finals, the Head-to-Head (5-2) and the experience will be on her side, but the American is playing well, has won a Slam before and comes in with a 6-0 record in finals.
Beyond the tennis itself, it will be a tricky task mentally for Halep, especially since Stephens will not be giving anything away emotionally. The intensity of the Romanian and the American are inherently different.
No matter the result thought, the growth that Halep has displayed in the past few months as good as guarantees one thing: the World No 1 will keep putting herself into positions contend for the Slams, regardless of the result of the 2018 French Open.
Updated Date: Jun 09, 2018 08:21 AM