The story of Wimbledon champion Simona Halep isn’t one of stardom or glamour or sensation.
She wasn’t a teen prodigy like Coco Gauff, who she beat en route the title. She isn’t an automatic favourite when she plays a match, like Serena Williams, who she beat in the final. She isn’t known to blitz people off the court with her hitting, like another former world No 1 Victoria Azarenka, who she also beat during this fortnight.
She was world No 1 before she won her first Grand Slam, she didn’t even have a clothing sponsor as the top seed at 2018 Australian Open and she isn’t a name global advertisers flock to like some of the younger players.
She lost three Grand Slam finals while a set away from the title, the harshest being the collapse against unseeded Jelena Ostapenko in the French Open final and the erratic Caroline Wozniacki in the Australian Open final within a span of months.
There was a time when people spoke more about her breast reduction surgery as a teen than her tennis.
But when she beat Williams in under an hour to win her second Grand Slam in two years, it was her game and endearing post-match interview that got talked about. It took a while to get there, but from an unpopular player she became the people’s champion. For the ones who have watched her over the years, this was a long time coming.
Effective, erratic tennis
So what is it that sets the 27-year-old from Romania apart?
After losing three straight Major finals, she won the last two against Slam champions, that’s how hard she makes herself work. She has also finished two years in a row as No. 1 in the world in a topsy-turvy WTA world.
Her work ethic, for once. Halep is a fighter, she will punch for every point from the baseline with a loud grunt of evident effort. She doesn’t win points or even always construct points, she earns them like a workhorse or fights for them like a warrior. You can scarcely believe how she keeps managing to put the ball back in play deep. She looks to be in a constant race against time, the ball, her opponent, and herself as she hustles all over the court.
It is not always elegant, but it can be very effective tennis… when it’s not erratic.
After the junior French Open title in 2008 at 16, it took ten years to translate that at the senior level. Until this year, she had never gone beyond the semi-finals at Wimbledon while the lone semi-final run in 2015 remains her best performance at the US Open. She fell from world No 1 at the start of the year to 7 before Wimbledon, winning no trophy in the first six months.
Her bigger problem has been mental though and she has constantly battled her own demons as much as the opponent. She has the endurance of a marathoner but negativity too often got hold of her. Two years back this attitude prompted her coach Darren Cahill – who has worked with Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt – to stop working with her. But since, she has turned a new leaf. She worked with a sports psychologist and promised a ‘new Simo.’
But in the last two weeks, she has showed that she really does have that sustainable game and grit to win big titles, despite drawbacks and after setbacks.
A different Halep this Wimbledon
This Wimbledon, she was almost a different person. Halep said that she was enjoying a”chill” year and not putting too much pressure on herself. It was okay that she could not defend her French Open title. It was okay that she had two changes of coach after Cahill left last year.
And it showed, the ‘Halepeno’ found the chill all right.
It was by no means an easy draw and almost every player the seventh seed faced look like they could beat her as has so often happened on a surface she isn’t comfortable on.
In the first round itself, she had to make a strong comeback. She seemed to hurt her ankle after the first set but fought from 2-5 in the second to beat Aliaksandra Sasnovich (who had stunned Petra Kvitova last year) 6-4, 7-5. In the second round, she dropped a set to compatriot Mihaela Buzărnescu – the only set she would lose here – and then proceeded to crush Azarenka and outhit the talented Gauff.
Then came the moment she would have normally stumbled at. Before the final three matches, Halep was a combined 1-10 in her last 11 matches against Shuai Zhang, Elina Svitolina and Serena. But she beat them all convincingly with smart tennis and solid mentality.
The quarterfinals against Zhang turned to be her toughest test. She was down 1-4 and was on the verge of a breadstick. But with 6 deuces in that game, she somehow defended her way out saving four break points. She pushed for a tiebreak at 6-6 and cruised in the second set 6-1.
In the semi-finals, she played Svitolina who could defend as well as her from the baseline. The scoreboard will say Halep won the first set 6-1, but it took her 43 minutes to win. She broke Svitolina’s serve in all games, but had to fend off five breakpoints and too many deuce games of her own.
In the final, she admitted that for once, she was not intimidated by Serena and it showed in the way she got off the blocks to take a 4-0 lead. In the sixth game of that opening set, she saved break point with a running forehand and made sure she didn’t have to serve herself out of trouble again.
Her first Grand Slam title at Roland Garros was a battle from a set and a break down against Sloane Stephens, her second was the worst final loss incurred by a 23-time Major winner. The difference in the two should tell you how Halep “chilled”, took a long and a road less travelled, but got there in the end.