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Simona Halep: A rare talent not crushed by the weight of victory

Simona Halep: A rare talent not crushed by the weight of victory

14/07/2019 at 11:44Updated 14/07/2019 at 13:18

One hour after dismantling Serena Williams in a brutal, efficient 6-2 6-2 demolition on her Centre Court, Simona Halep beamed as she recounted a perfect day that ended with her first Wimbledon title.

"I'm very sure that was the best match of my life, she said. Also on grass against her is never easy. So, I'm really proud of my game of today and the whole tournament."

From the glancing, angled forehand passing shot in the second point, Halep never let up. She smothered Williams’ second serve and neutralised the first, striking rasping winners off both of her groundstrokes at full stretch. Her 13 winners and three unforced errors were an absurdity. She finished the match completely composed, never betraying a hint of nerves.

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It had been a long time coming. In the past, Halep stepped onto the court with Williams intimidated by her aura and her greatness, but their last two matches were riveting, high-quality battles at the 2016 US Open and Australian Open this year that made her believe. She tested her game on the biggest stages and found that she could land blows against Williams and soak up her pressure. The Romanian learnt that she had no reason not to stare her down as an equal.

It wasn’t until this year that Halep believed she could win on grass, either. She had reached the semi-finals in 2014, where she sprained her ankle in the first set of her match against Eugenie Bouchard and lost. But grass was always the surface that was most alien to her. Halep’s movement is her currency and her feet were never quite set on the lawn, while the clay courts she grew up on offer her the time and space to step back and methodically construct points. Grass requires her to stand on the baseline and be fearless.

“I'm a different person. Everything changed. I have a lot of experience now. I'm more confident. I love grass,” said Halep after reaching the semi-final this week. Then she smiled. “It's [the] first time when I say that.”

Over the past half decade in tennis, few careers have been as fascinating as Halep’s. Until her win at the 2018 French Open, Halep had spent her four years in the top 10 chasing the slam title that desperately eluded her. She is naturally a perfectionist, which can be catastrophic in a sport where even the best players lose most tournament weeks, conceding hundreds of points even when they win. Even as she consistently racked up titles and wins, she would often self-destruct in a stream of errors and self-pity. Sometimes, she would stop trying.

It all came to a head during her quarterfinal loss to Johanna Konta at the Miami Open in 2017 when she called her then-coach, Darren Cahill, onto the court and castigated herself for three minutes. “This is my character. I’m so bad,” she said. When her coach asked her how she would recover, she responded immediately: “no chance.” After she lost, Cahill decided to temporarily split from Halep and he only returned three weeks later when she showed that her mentality it has Halep frequently cites it as the turning point in her career.

Serena Williams and Simona Halep at Wimbledon in 2019

Serena Williams and Simona Halep at Wimbledon in 2019Getty Images

For all the effort she invested in her mentality, Halep still couldn’t win. She fell to Jelena Ostapenko from a 6-4 3-0 double break lead in one of the most gutting losses in recent years in the 2017 French Open final. At the Australian Open the following year, she battled through three endless, gruelling matches against Lauren Davis, then Angelique Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki, the latter two in the semi-final and final. Halep finished the day linked up to a drip in a hospital bed. Along with her brutal three-set loss to Maria Sharapova in the 2014 Roland Garros final, she lost her first three slam finals before Roland Garros last year.

The weight of victory has crushed many recent female champions, but Halep offered a different perspective altogether. She realised that she had already done all that she had set out to do by reaching number one and winning Roland Garros, so it was time to be nicer to herself. For much of her life, Halep has practiced the sport with almost an ascetic devotion to success. Instead, she decided to go out and see friends she normally didn’t see, she devoted more time to her niece and she ended her year with a big holiday.

On the court, Halep has been more calm and less reactive. She takes her losses easier. When she failed to defend her treasured French Open title last month, falling in the quarterfinal to 17 year-old Amanda Anisimova, she sat back comfortably in her seat and shrugged off the loss with a smile. ”But I think I had good matches, and I'm leaving this tournament with positive thoughts,” she said.

It was a pleasant sight, but it was also curious to see a player so satisfied after such an important defeat. Halep has stressed that she is still training as hard as she has done in previous years, but throughout the year it has been interesting to see whether she lost some small fraction of her competitive edge by prioritising her peace of mind over everything else. At Wimbledon, Simona Halep showed that her happiness can only lead to more success.

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