Elegantly garbed and complemented by a shiny Tiffany & Co. ring, Simona Halep glistened alongside the World No 1 trophy. The affable Romanian was certainly photogenic during a glitzy ceremony in Singapore last October to celebrate finishing 2017 the WTA's top-ranked player.
The elephant in the room, however, hung over like a dark cloud and undoubtedly dampened the festivities for the newly-minted No 1. Halep soon had to answer questions peppered from journalists about her inability to win tournaments and failure to break through at Grand Slams — as highlighted by her astonishing meltdown during the French Open earlier that year to an inspired Jelena Ostapenko.
Even though she had reached an admirable achievement, everyone knows that winning majors ultimately matters in tennis. It's nice to be known as a No 1, but being a Grand Slam champion is far more important for legacy purposes.
For Halep, 2018 is as a defining year and one where she has to break her frustrating drought. If she continues to fall short at majors, Halep would be painted as an underachiever and a player unable to handle the lights when they shone brightest.
She had another golden opportunity in January’s Australian Open but fell short in a titanic struggle to Caroline Wozniacki, who instead broke through for her maiden Slam. There was no meltdown from Halep on this occasion and she was universally praised for a lion-hearted effort. Still, truth be told, the 26-year-old had failed another chance to win a coveted major and she was starting to compile an unwelcome finals record at Grand Slams — an unflattering 0-3.
Even though her consistency was to be admired, Halep had played in more Grand Slam finals without winning than any other active female player and the pressure intensified for the French Open — where she had been a finalist twice before. Once again, she did the hard yards and stormed through to the final but the moment of truth was still ahead. There would be no consolation prize; Halep just had to defeat Sloane Stephens at Roland Garros. Perhaps it’s slightly hyperbolic, but it certainly felt like Halep’s career was at a crossroad and another defeat would undoubtedly have been a major setback for her career.
Halep was staring down the barrel of another defeat at a set and break down, and one couldn’t blame her if she was already thinking of her concession speech — a grim place she had been before. However, summoning the strength of a champion, Halep raised her game and stunningly flipped the match around to lose just three more games for the remainder.
There were no mental demons on this occasion. Impressively, Halep turned the momentum around through a change of tactics, including lengthening rallies and cutting back errors. She had refuted the doubters and played her best when it mattered most.
Finally, overcoming all the heartbreak, Halep had become a Grand Slam champion and now it genuinely feels something special is ahead. For so many, the breakthrough is the hardest — think Roger Federer pre-Wimbledon 2003 or Steve Waugh before the 1989 Ashes — but once the barrier has been broken, much success often follows.
For Halep, she doesn’t have long to regroup with Wimbledon — the biggest tournament of them all — awaiting and she has been seeded No 1 for the women’s draw. However, the vagaries of playing on grass means Wimbledon can be sometimes akin to a crapshoot — heightened by women’s tennis being particularly open since Serena Williams went on maternity leave early 2017.
Williams is back but still slowly rediscovering her best and some question whether the American legend can remain the redoubtable force of yesteryear. Those question marks provide an opening for a player to take the throne and Halep is in the prime position considering her consistency of the past 12 months.
Even though she prefers clay and the hard courts, Halep has had success at the All England Club reaching the semi-finals in 2014 and the quarters last year. She has triumphed on grass before - in Den Bosch in 2013.
The diminutive player, who stands 5 foot 6, faces the daunting challenge of backing up her success in Paris. Since 1974 in women’s tennis, only Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams have done the French Open-Wimbledon double in the same year. If Halep does well at Wimbledon, her standing will be elevated several notches.
Intriguingly, it will be fascinating to see how Halep responds to having overcome such a mountain. Will she still have the same requisite hunger or will she suffer an infamous ‘hangover’ which has tripped up many before?
Having displayed so much poise during that memorable French Open finale, Simona Halep is on top of the world and it’s a heady place that one feels she’s thoroughly enjoying.
Undoubtedly, that’s an ominous warning to her rivals at Wimbledon.
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Updated Date: Jun 29, 2018 16:01:54 IST