Relaxed Halep eyeing maiden major

  • Linda Pearce

Whether or not Simona Halep was the rightful year-end No.1 is a subject best left to last season, for this one is all about the Romanian's attempts to fill her much-discussed Grand Slam void. How close she was at Roland Garros, for a second time, and how devastating the shock loss to unseeded, free-swinging Jelena Ostapenko would prove to be.

Halep admitted it openly, speaking candidly about the crushing disappointment of failing to close out a final she had led by a set and 3-0, saying the memories of some tentative returns on a trio of break points in that fourth game were the ones "killing" her when she resumed at Eastbourne two weeks later. Even then, she was still thinking about that match at night before she went to sleep. Or tried to.

As you would, because the defeat also cost the now 26-year-old the top ranking for a first time, and there would be three other near-misses before the honour - also Romania’s first - was finally achieved in the Beijing semi-finals in October on what she describes as the best day of her life.

On that painful afternoon in Paris, however, Halep could not have known if it would eventually happen, just as she must still be wondering if that major championship ever will.

The clay of Roland Garros appeals as her best chance, of course, and consecutive quarter-finals in 2014-15 are as deep as she has gone into the Australian Open draw. As the second seed, Halep has been upset in the opening round for the past two years, although in 2017 against Shelby Rogers she was nobbled by a knee injury that confined her to the sidelines for almost the next two months.

It is all very different this time: no Serena Williams, for starters, and top dog status for the first time. After such an emotional season, Halep recovered and refreshed with a four-week break after going 1-2 in the pool matches of the WTA Finals in Singapore, then completed a solid training block with her Australian coach Darren Cahill before resuming in Asia and earning a 16th career title in Shenzhen.

I did a great job last year. It was a tough year, very emotional. I need to recharge the batteries, I need to feel every match, to feel every tournament, not think anymore about the results, because I did last year and it was pretty hard.
Simona Halep on her 2017

"I went out almost every day with my friends. I didn’t think about tennis. I did nothing. I didn’t think about the No.1 ranking," Halep told WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen from Shenzhen of her hiatus.

"It was a little bit more (attention) in Romania. Now, since I’m No.1, there are many people around, I went to the restaurant and the owners are paying the bills. Everything's changed, to be honest. Darren went with me to dinner - he stayed like 12 days in Romania - and we never paid. He said I was a cheap date. It was funny." 

Halep also insisted the top spot that had occupied so many of her thoughts in 2017 was "gone" from her head. "I touched it, I saw how it is, and it doesn't matter anymore. I just want to win matches. We said that this year we have no goals. I have the goal of just being better on court. To try to win every match I play. No more rankings, no more other stuff. Just enjoying. 

"In my opinion, I did a great job last year. It was a tough year, very emotional. I need to recharge the batteries, I need to feel every match, to feel every tournament, not think anymore about the results, because I did last year and it was pretty hard."

Elsewhere, the debate will continue, for Halep is - after Jelena Jankovic (2008) and Caroline Wozniacki (2010-11) - the third year-end No.1 to reign without being crowned as a major winner.

If Serena Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou is among those who advocate a change to the ranking system to more amply reward those who perform in the Slams, then, for reasons of consistency, Martina Navratilova considers top spot to be the superior feat. "To be No.1, you have to be better than everybody else; to win a Slam, you just have to be better than seven players," the former great told a WTA podcast last year.

Halep will discover the first of those seven when the Open draw is conducted on Thursday night at Melbourne Park. Her name will be on line one of 128, which is unfamiliar territory, and her kit no longer supplied by Adidas, after the recent expiry of her four-year endorsement deal.

For now, that apparel canvas has been left blank, but the Halep brand is strong. The owner of one of the game’s finest backhands is fast and athletic, dedicated and determined to improve her serve, among other things, having already changed her mentality since a transformative moment in Miami. 

While still chasing a major goal, the popular Romanian has rightly celebrated achieving another. "I'm in a place that I have never been," Halep said in Singapore. "Also with the happiness. Also with my inside feelings about everything happen this year. I think was my best year so far, and after I had so many difficult moments, I was able to come back stronger. So, yeah, it's really nice, and for sure I will never forget."