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Simona's great transformation: How Halep made it to the top

Simona Halep of Romania. (AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Roar Rookie
21st February, 2018
6

It was a warm Wednesday afternoon in Miami. Simona Halep strode back to her chair and sat herself down in a dejected slump.

Moments earlier, she’d all but beaten her quarter-final opponent, Great Britain’s Johanna Konta, having won the first set and secured the mini-break in the second set tiebreaker, leading 5-4 with two service points in hand.

But, the Briton managed to hang tough, and with some great play, and a little luck, she pulled out the second set breaker 9-7.

Halep was livid. Despite the match still being winnable, the way she saw it, she’d had the match in her pocket and let it slip away. She was discouraged and she was stewing in it.

Her coach, Australia’s Darren Cahill, came and joined her on the sidelines. He gave her an encouraging pat on the leg and, as though he recognised the precariousness of the situation, immediately reassured his charger.

“It’s okay, we’re a set all. No problem. Just reset,” said Cahill.

the entire conversation was not clearly audible, but the dynamic was as clear as the Miami sky – Simona was on the verge of a complete mental freefall and Cahill was fervently trying to make her grasp for the ripcord. It was an extraordinarily tense, uncomfortable moment between player and coach.

“This is my character. I am so bad. 5-4 to serve, double fault and I miss all the balls,” said Halep.

“You can write yourself off, but I’m not writing you off”, Cahill replied sternly.

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“But I didn’t win in the second set when I had so many chances,” Halep fired back.

“You didn’t do everything wrong… she hit some great shots, a little bit braver on the bigger points. That’s what I want you to be, be brave,” said her coach.

Despite his best efforts, Simona was exhaling negativity and frustration, as much to herself as to her coach.

Cahill would not give up.

“I’m not going to fight you on this, okay? You have a conversation with that person on your shoulder, not with me… you have an opportunity to fix this.”

But he was not getting through to her. In a last-ditch effort to shake her out of her funk, Darren Cahill made a small, simple request.

“Hey… small smile.”

No smile came.

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Simona Halep

(AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)

After the match, Simona seemed sober and focused as she complimented Konta in her post-match interview. There was a resignation about her. Perhaps she’d practised what she’d say as she meekly surrendered the deciding set 2-6.

For years, the knock on Simona Halep had been that she was mentally fragile. That she allowed her emotions to get the better of her. That she was more likely to roll the ball up the middle of the court in crunch time than rip for the lines.

After her semi-final loss to Flavia Pennetta in the 2015 US Open, she spoke openly about the anxiety and nerves that plagued her when she came to the later stages of major tournaments. Although it wasn’t always the later stages – she’d lost the first round of the Australian Open two years running.

However, If she was indeed resigned to coming up short in this match, the next occurrence would surely come as a shock. Cahill told Simona he would take a break from working with her until she changed her attitude, and that they would talk again after the French Open.

Simona Halep was suddenly without a coach.

She was left a full month to ponder the situation and her actions. She would later remark she felt ashamed watching the video of what transpired on the sidelines in Miami – a coach, completely engaged with his player, trying desperately to get through to her. Herself meanwhile, unable and unwilling to respond. Unable to even meet his eyes. This is the image she was left with for a full month of reflection.

She tore into the claycourt season, her favoured surface, with renewed vigour. First up, national team duty in the Fed Cup as Romania took on Great Britain on home soil.

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Halep played three of the five rubbers: an honourable loss in the doubles alongside Monica Niculescu, a straight sets victory over Heather Watson, and a straight sets drubbing over her Miami conqueror Konta.

Next up was the Porsche Grand Prix in Stuttgart. She entered the tournament as the fourth seed and was therefore granted a bye into the second round where she would face top-20 veteran Barbora Strycova. Strycova would break Halep’s serve early and take a 2-0 lead, a perfect chance for Simona to curse herself and succumb to a complete meltdown.

But Simona wanted none of it. She dug in and won the next seven games on the trot, ultimately taking the match in straight sets. In the following round, all her clay court prowess would be on display as she comfortably advanced past Anastasija Sevastova.

She then lost to the previous year’s runner-up, hometown favourite and eventual champion Laura Siegemund in the semi-final. Siegemund played the tournament of her life, beating three top-ten players on the way to the championship, and while Halep would number among them, she fought to the very last point. There were breaks of serve on both sides of the net and Halep very nearly forced a decider.

Cahill had seen enough. Player and coach would be reunited and Simona would once again be able to glance up to her player’s box and see Darren Cahill, poker-faced but for his permanently furrowed brow, constantly engaged, supporting and analysing every point.

In the ensuing two weeks, she would make the finals of consecutive clay-court premier mandatory tournaments, winning the trophy in Madrid, and finishing a runner-up in Rome to Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina. On the way to each of these finals she would exact revenge upon player’s who’d handed her two of her losses on tour that season, beating Kiki Mladenovic in Madrid and Laura Siegemund in her opening match in Rome.

Heading into Roland Garros (which she has cited as her favourite tournament), her confidence and her attitude had improved beyond measure.

She would power through the first four matches, ousting Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro (against whom she held a zero and four record on clay) 6-1 6-1, before a quarter-final rematch with her Rome Conqueror, Elina Svitolina.

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Svitolina was having the antithesis of Simona’s year thus far. A breakout season that saw her hoist four WTA Tour trophies including her premier mandatory title in Rome. A serious test, and an opportunity to purge some demons if ever there was one.

For a prolonged period, the purge did not go as planned. After their three-set affair in Rome, Elina came out firing, and after a mere 70 minutes of play, Svitolina was serving for the match at 6-3 5-2. Now it was Simona’s turn to hang tough.

She started letting rip with her groundstrokes. She got a little a more creative with her pace and her placement, giving Svitolina some new things to think about, and in doing so, managed to steal back a break of serve.

Now it was Elina doing the scrambling as she fought to adjust to the change in momentum. The two scrapped and clawed all the way down to a second set tiebreak where it remained on serve until Simona was facing match point on serve at 5-6.

Elina Svitolina

It was a something of a crossroads, and a compelling microcosm for the battle she was facing with her coach. In Miami, Cahill had reminded her that over the course of her career, she had come off second best in numerous clutch situations like this, and challenged her to be braver in the bigger moments.

In Paris, where the stakes were so much higher, Simona saved her tournament life belting a backhand deep into the deuce court, then, from dead centre, stepping into the court and blasting a forehand that skidded off the ad court line.

Elina reached the ball, but Simona reaped the rewards of her brave play and slid an easy putaway into the open court. A few moments later, the tables were turned. Now Halep held set point on Svitolina’s serve, and in the ensuing rally, fortune was on her side as she caught a net cord that plopped onto the other side of the net.

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Momentum now belonged to Halep and she won the next six games straight. As unlikely a comeback as any you’ll see in sports.

The win catapulted her past Karolina Pliskova and into her second Roland Garros final. She was in contention for not only her first grand slam title, but the world No.1 ranking. There, she would face an unseeded newcomer in Jelena Ostapenko.

It’s no secret how the final played out. Two players at different points of their careers, with completely different game styles. Jelena Ostapenko was a free-hitting young firebrand from Latvia, wildly talented and just as unpredictable as likely to fire a winner from anywhere in the court as she was to spray an unforced error.

In her fourth-round match against Sam Stosur she would lose the first four games of the match and in her quarter-final with Caroline Wozniacki, the first five. But she would continue crushing groundstrokes and against all odds, scrape through each time.

In her semi-final meeting with Timea Bacsinszky she would advance on the finest of margins, winning a solitary point more than her opponent in the match.

Simona was at her tactical, deliberate best. Ostapenko’s freewheeling game was in full flight. And given that they had never played, neither had a frame of reference for the other’s game. It was uncharted territory.

Simona would lead a set, and hold points to go up 4-0 in the second. But Ostapenko was moving with the lightness of someone who was playing completely bereft of expectation and striking every ball like it stole something.

At 3-3 in the deciding set, when facing a break point, Simona would be forced to watch one of Ostapenko’s all-or-nothing ground strokes catch the net cord, sail high into the air and drop cruelly into the court, millimetres to spare on each side.

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The break of serve would prove decisive, and Ostapenko would ride it to the championship.

Jelena Ostapenko Tennis French Open 2017

( The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images )

Many critics cited this as yet another meltdown, but victory that day was far from a foregone conclusion.

Tactically, the line between beating the bold young star and allowing her to beat herself proved treacherously fine, and one on which proven campaigners such as herself, Wozniacki, Stosur and Bacsinkszky had all faltered.

But the absurd disparity in winners and unforced errors between the two (8 and 10 to Simona respectively, a mind-boggling 54 and 54 for Ostapenko) suggested that she had been too risk-averse in one of the biggest matches of her career, and allowed the young challenger to play the match on her terms.

But then, there is a well-known adage about best-laid plans. It was time to go back into the tank, but this time Darren Cahill was with her.

If the 2017 clay court season had purged a few demons, the ensuing months were a complete exorcism. Her grasscourt campaign comprised deep runs at Eastbourne and Wimbledon, culminating with tough three-set losses to Caroline Wozniacki and Johanna Konta respectively.

The latter was a reversal of their Fed cup meeting that year; facing their opponent against an extremely vocal, partisan home crowd, and on a lesser-favoured surface.

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After trading tiebreaks in the first two sets, the match was decided in a fashion most unusual as Simona, double match point down, would flub a routine forehand in appeal to the chair umpire, incensed that a fan broke Wimbledon’s famous hush by shrieking as she took her shot.

Even Konta muted her celebration with an enquiring look toward the chair. But the point would stand and Johanna advanced to the semi-finals.

The back end of the season would bring a few deep runs and a few losses, varying in their degrees of severity, but none were a prelude to a slump, and all brought a lesson from which Simona was apt and eager to learn.

She was handed a rather unkind first round match against a resurgent Maria Sharapova (against whom she’d never won) at the US Open, which she would lose in another gruelling three sets. Another tough match-up, another chance to take your opponent to hell and back. Little-by-little, Simona was rewriting the script and despite these losses, Simona’s consistency would see her reach a new career milestone by the end of the season.

She entered the Beijing premier mandatory as the second-ranked player in the world. On her way to the semi-final she would notch her first win in eight meetings against Maria Sharapova, sending her packing 6-2 6-2, before finally gaining the world No.1 ranking with a revenge victory over Jelena Ostapenko.

She would ultimately lose to an inspired Caroline Garcia in the final, but she would avenge the loss mere weeks later in Singapore.

The No.1 ranking had proven a bogie position for well over a calendar year. Despite preceding successes, no player entering a tournament ranked at the top had won any WTA tournament since Angelique Kerber bumped Serena Williams from the summit in September 2016. A testament to the difficulty of defending the crown.

It was Simona Halep who would break the drought, lifting the Shenzhen title at the start of the 2018 season, exacting revenge upon defending champion Katerina Siniakova in the process, to whom she’d lost the previous year.

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And so the stage was set – Halep was the number one seed in the Australian Open, and would enter the tournament dogged by recollections of the first round curse. She would begin her campaign against big-hitting Aussie up-and-comer Destanee Aiava, and after an initial scare, would prevail in straight sets.

The wheels were in motion. She had already delivered a performance that bested her efforts from the past two years, and she said as much in her post-match press conference.

“I was a actually stressed a little bit, because two years in a row I lost first round, so I didn’t want to do the third one”, she quipped with a smile.

But shaking the first round curse did not mean she would not come face to face with adversity in this tournament. After clinically disposing of Genie Bouchard, she found herself deep in the trenches with American Lauren Davis in the third round.

After splitting the difference in the first two sets, Simona had an opportunity to serve the match out at 5-4. But Davis, showing immense bravery and the dogged, plucky tenacity that is all but required from a fellow smaller player, broke right back and the fight wore on.

Both were hobbled; Simona having aggravated a persisting ankle injury in her first round match, and Davis later revealing she’d torn a toenail off, but no quarter was given. They traded service breaks, and at 10-11 (which represented the equivalent of the beginning of a fifth set) Halep fell behind 0-40 on serve, handing Lauren Davis three match points.

“Honestly, I thought it’s over at that moment”, Simona would later remark. “But [it] was good because I relaxed my arm and I served pretty well, those three balls, and then she took the medical. I had time to calm down. I had time to believe again, to restart the mind”.

It echoed Darren Cahill’s suggestion that she ‘reset’ in the throes of her battle with Konta.

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It could so easily have been another story of an unlikely early round exit. But eventually, in a match plagued by each player’s inability consolidate a service break in the deciding set, Simona did just that, taking the match 4-6 6-4 15-13. Notch that down as a four hour, five-set classic that finished 6-2 in the fifth.

Simona Halep

(Carine06 / Flickr)

When asked if she’d have been able to pull that match out a year or two earlier, she did not mince words.

“No. I think now I am much stronger… I could resist for every moment in the match, that makes me very happy, and I think the big win is that I could handle it”.

Any concerns over her ability to bounce back from that marathon encounter were quickly put to rest as she raced through her next two matches against Naomi Osaka and Karolina Pliskova, beating both with the same resounding scoreline of 6-3 6-2. It set up the meeting many had been anticipating since the beginning of the tournament: Simona Halep against 2016 champion Angelique Kerber.

Kerber was primed to become the new queen of tennis after a 2016 campaign which saw her hoist two grand slam trophies and an Olympic silver medal, before crashing to a string of lacklustre results in 2017.

But it was a new season, and she’d come off to a flying start in 2018, carving through her first two tournaments of the year. She’d helped Germany place as runners-up to Switzerland in the Hopman Cup, and had won it all in Sydney. It was a meeting between two of the only three players who had yet to suffer a defeat thus far in the season, with Kerber favoured by many to win the Australian Open once again.

The match delivered in spades. It was a contest defined by rallies that had the crowd in Rod Laver Arena reeling. Two aggressive counter-punchers using every inch of the court to run their opponent, force errors and hit winners.

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It was no place for the meek, and neither player comported themselves so. It was a thrilling display of the quality of tennis that wins majors, and despite failing to capitalise on two match points earlier in the contest, then facing some on Kerber’s serve, Simona held her nerve to prevail 9-7 in the third, hitting a whopping 50 winners to Kerber’s 33.

In her on-court interview, Rennae Stubbs asked her from where she drew the fight to once again stave off match points and overcome her opponent.

“Well in this match it was first I had two match balls, and I lost them, and I said that if she came back I can [still] do it. So I had just confidence in myself, I decided after I switched my ankle that I will fight for every point and I will go ’til the end, I will give everything [in] this tournament and then I will rest.”

If her performances on court had not already convinced you, her words certainly must have. They could not have differed more from the angry, frustrated tirade she gave Darren Cahill in Miami.

And so with her new, positive attitude, she was in a second major final in under a year. Two finals out of the last four, and this time she’d face Caroline Wozniacki; another player who’d borne the criticism of holding the No.1 ranking without winning a major, only she’d done it for over 60 weeks between 2010 and 2012.

She too had overcome adversity in Melbourne, fighting off match points against Jana Fett in round 2 after trailing 1-5 and 15-40 in the deciding set.

It was a final that told two different fairy tales, only one of which could have a happy ending.

The bravest of souls could not have picked a winner to this when the scores stood at 3-3 in the third set. But as the match wore into the night, it was the fresher legs that prevailed. The heavy lifting Simona had done over the fortnight had caught up with her and Wozniacki brought out extraordinary running and stellar defence to bring up championship point.

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Moments later, when Simona relinquished the match with a backhand error, Caroline fell to the ground in elation. Simona spun towards her player’s box.

Caroline Wozniacki

(AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

The tournament was over, and Simona had come up painfully short once again.

It was a match neither player deserved to lose, but somebody had to and one could not help but have the sense that Wozniacki may have needed it a little more.

The last time she had even contested a grand slam final was in 2014, the same season as Simona’s first. And it wasn’t too long ago many of us wondered if Caroline’s time as an elite tennis player was all but finished, as she saw her ranking plummet amid injury woes.

But all of this was of small comfort to Simona. We watched her sigh and puff through the commiseration speeches delivered by event sponsors and organisers (probably the least consoling part of a tournament loss) and deliver a genuine, congratulatory speech to her opponent.

The favour was returned by Wozniacki in kind. There was an iron-clad respect between these two, born of an understanding of their mutual struggle to be validated and recognised in an era of big, strong power hitters.

In her post-match press conference, when asked how she was feeling, Simona smiled and said “I can still smile. I cried, but now I am smiling. It is just a tennis match in the end”.

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A mature, positive attitude about what could only be a devastating loss. But it took the highest level of tennis from an outstanding player like Caroline Wozniacki to deny Halep in a tournament where she hadn’t even won a match since 2015.

Over two weeks Simona showed courage and mental fortitude that stood well above her frame, and all at once, the narrative has changed from ‘does she have what it takes to win a major?’, to ‘how long until she wins a major?’.

After her victory over Karolina Pliskova, Sam Smith asked Simona if she’d taken on any Australian habits as part of her training.

“You guys are very relaxed”, she said to the audience in attendance. “Darren helped me with this. I’m not stressing myself that much before the matches. I’m trying just to start the matches with pleasure, with fun, and being happy on court, so thank you Darren, and thank you the Australian people.”

It would be rather a lofty thing for any of us to claim the drama and magic she created on court this summer, but Simona, you are more than welcome.

And as for the WTA tour, you are officially put on notice.

In recent years, Simona Halep has started the season with a whimper. This year she’s started it with a roar.
But perhaps just as much as the roar itself, her opponents need be wary of the smile that now follows it.

It signifies a shift in attitude and perspective. A lightness brought about through hard knocks, determination and the toughening of her mind.

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“…in a last ditch effort to shake her out of her funk, Darren Cahill made a small, simple request. “Hey… small smile”.

At long last, the smile has arrived.