Who’s going to win the Australian Open? Naomi Osaka? Serena Williams? Ashleigh Barty?
How about Simona Halep?
Ranked No 2 in the world, Halep has won two Grand Slam titles – the French Open in 2018 and Wimbledon in 2019 – along with 20 other singles titles. She has spent 64 weeks of her career as world No 1 and this week she has reached the milestone of seven consecutive years in the top 10. Her run of 346 weeks is bettered by only seven players in history, and among current players the next best is Karolina Pliskova with 209 weeks.
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Yet when it comes to Grand Slams, Halep is not normally mentioned as one of the pre-tournament favourites – aside from Roland Garros, where she has made the final on three occasions.
It may partly be down to her unassuming personality, but also her style on the court. She doesn’t have the most powerful groundstrokes on tour and doesn't possess a dominant serve. At 1.68m she isn’t an imposing figure and she doesn’t seem to have the same aura as some of the other top players.
But what she does works. Very well.
She’s an excellent mover, quick to chase down balls and ask questions of her opponents when she gets it back over the net. She’s more than just a counter-puncher and although she isn’t exceptionally powerful, she strikes the ball very well and can hit plenty of winners, as she showed in the Australian Open semi-finals in 2019 against Angelique Kerber when she racked up 50 in a superb contest.
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At Wimbledon in 2019 she flew under the radar nearly all the way to the final before producing arguably the finest performance of her career to beat Serena Williams in just 56 minutes. On that day it wasn’t about the number of winners, but her lack of unforced errors (three) and her court coverage to drag Williams into long rallies and keep her moving.
Williams afterwards described Halep as a “little powerhouse”.
“There’s so many impressive things about her. Her tenacity, her ability to improve every time, just to keep improving. Her ability to find power. You can’t underestimate her.”
That too was on a surface where Halep was not expected to win, given her relative lack of power. But while clay might be her strongest surface, she has won around the world and since breaking into the top 10 her win percentage of .751 is bettered only by Williams (.857) and Bianca Andreescu (.769).
“I'm looking for perfection, that's for sure,” she told the WTA this week. “But at the same time, I know perfection doesn't exist. So I could accept my imperfection many times and try to get it closer to perfection. Maybe reaching all the time for perfection made me push my limits higher.”
If there’s one thing that Halep has lacked over the last few years it is consistency at Grand Slams. She has won two in the last three years, reached another final and also a semi-final and quarter-final. In the other five she has failed to make it past the fourth round.
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There is a sense that she maybe could have won more, particularly at the French Open. Last year she was the top seed and started strongly before getting blown off the court by surprise winner Iga Swiatek. In 2017 she was a set and 3-0 up against Jelena Ostapenko before losing in three, and in 2019 she suffered a surprise quarter-final loss to 17-year-old Amanda Anisimova.
But her consistency away from the majors has put her among the greats with her run of 346 weeks in the top 10. If she continues she could overtake Hana Mandlikova, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and Pam Shriver in the all-time standings in the next couple of years.
Speaking early last year she said staying at the top of the game was something she has strived for.
“I always had in my mind that I had to be consistent. I don’t like the way you win a tournament and then you don’t do anything for a few months.
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“Since I met [coach] Darren [Cahill] I thought we had to look into the big picture, not just that week. So I did that pretty well. That’s the way I could stay such a long time on the top.
“I think this (consistency) makes me more proud than winning titles because if you are able to be there, you have everything like power, strong mental and physical also very form.”
Halep already sits among the greats with her latest record, but how long will it be before she is truly recognised as one of the greats herself?
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