Simona Halep looks down at the white towel with which she has just wiped sweat from her arms. Her coach Darren Cahill, called down from the stands to have a short chat, sits down on the green bench next to her. He looks at her, then pats her on the knee.
– OK. No problem. Reset, he tells her in his Australian accent.
It’s March 2017, and Halep, the world’s number 4, is playing Britain’s Johanna Konta — ranked 11th — in the quarter final of the Miami Open. It’s so hot that during breaks the players are draping towels dipped in ice over themselves. Halep won the first set 6–3, a set in which the commentators said that the British player didn’t play badly, but simply couldn’t compete with Halep’s brilliant play. The Romanian then has a chance to win the match in the second set, at 5–4, but Konta forces a tie-break. Halep serves two double faults and Konta takes the set, forcing a decisive third.
– Sometimes I need energy, Halep tells Cahill. She wipes her face with the towel and says something about asking for too much. Then she sighs deeply.
– This is my character.
She turns towards the bag of rackets between her and Cahill and pulls angrily at the zip.
– I’m so bad.
She takes out a new racket, a Wilson with a red and black frame.
– Ridiculous bad.
The 51-year-old coach looks at her calmly under the peak of his blue cap.
– And how are you going to fix it then?
Simona shrugs her shoulders.
– No chance!
While she unwraps the new racket, she lists her mistakes, without looking at Cahill, who reminds her that she had played well until then.
– You can write yourself off, but I’m not writing you off.
– All the time I complicate things.
– Well then Simo, you have an opportunity to make a difference. You’ve been in this position many, many times before, and most times you’ve come out second best. So now you have an opportunity to change things. It’s up to you. You can decide what you want to do here. You can go down this path and it’s fine. Or you can take a deep breath, put the towel over your head and try to get a little better in these situations. It’s as simple as that. It’s up to you. It comes from within.
The conversation in which Cahill reminded Halep that her biggest rival on court was herself, not her opponent, took place three months after the start of a season which she had begun with high hopes: both her own and those of her fans at home.
At 25, she was coming off the back of three years in which she had never fallen outside the world’s top five for more than a few weeks; three years in which she had won 14 WTA tournaments and reached the final of a Grand Slam. She was the most popular Romanian athlete, the highest-earning, she had the most fans and a long list of sponsors. Kids took up the game because of her, and fans gathered in front of their TV sets and crowded the stands to watch her play.
And yet she had never won a Grand Slam, and some of her fans began to fear she never would. She had enjoyed impressive victories, had been praised to the heavens on television and Facebook, but her defeats were also referred to as shameful. Praised by fans and tennis folk for her varied and fluid game, based on speed, she was also criticised for her weak serve, for changing coaches so often and for caving in under pressure at key moments.
She had prepared for the new season with her coach Cahill, at his home in Australia. With him by her side, she was hoping to win a Grand Slam, maybe even become world number one. She left for Australia before Christmas, which she usually spent at home with her family in Constanța. Physical tests looked good. She was ready.
During her first matches however, a victory and a defeat at Shenzhen, in China, she felt pain in her left knee. An old bout of tendinitis had returned, which made it difficult for her to sprint across court. The fastest player on the circuit couldn’t use her speed. Before the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam tournament of the year, she did everything she could to get fit: she took anti-inflammatories, and during the first round, she asked for a medical break. She even took a painkiller. But it still hurt too much and she lost. After another tournament from which she had to withdraw due to the injury, she took a break. At the end of March, missing match practice, she fell to fifth place in the WTA rankings and wondered if she would even finish the year in the top eight, high enough to make the WTA Finals in Singapore.
Miami was the first tournament she really felt physically prepared for. That’s what Cahill was trying to remind her of during their on-court coaching: to give herself time to regain confidence. She was the better athlete.
Simona looked at him.
– You think I can win this match?
– I absolutely think you can win this match.
– If I didn’t win it in the second set, when I had so many chances…
She rummaged through a red bag looking for a pair of socks.
– You didn’t do everything wrong. A couple of doubles, she hit some great shots, she was a little braver on the bigger points. That’s what I want you to be. Be brave!
Simona bent down to change her socks, moaning about her serve.
– I’m not fighting you on this, OK? You have a conversation with that person on your shoulder, not with me. Because I’m not the one who can answer these questions for you. You are the only one who can answer these questions for you. And you have an opportunity to fix this. You have another hour of tennis out here, where you can make it physical. You are a better athlete, make it an athletic contest. (…) If you make a couple of errors, no problem. But play this on your terms. (…) Time for change.
He encouraged her again with a pat on the knee, then went back to his box, leaving her alone. Simona gave an empty stare for a few moments. Time, said the umpire. Simona stood up, picked up her racket and walked back onto court. She won the first game of the final set, saving a break-point, but it wasn’t enough. She lost the set 6–2.
Then she lost Cahill too.
Six weeks later she was in her first final of the year. In Madrid, a tournament which she had won in 2016, she was playing Kristina Mladenovic, a French player nicknamed Kiki, already in her fourth final of the year.
Simona won the first set, coming back after trailing 5–3. In the second set, a game from victory, she received a lob that landed close to the baseline, right in the corner. She got to it in time, but her backhand sent the ball wide. Having lost another point she had been expected to win, she turned her back to the net and threw her racket into the clay. As it bounced up she gave it a whack with her left hand, then kicked it away with her foot.
Simona’s fans have learnt to fear what comes after such outbursts of frustration: a quick serve after a mistake, the ball bounced just a couple of times; the shaking of her head; a finger pointed at her temple after an uninspired choice of shot; her racket thrown on the ground; shouts at herself or her team. All these boil up inside her and when they break out they cause her to rush. Sometimes they make her seek revenge. Most of the time they consume her energy, and make her lose.
She had spoken in Madrid, after a match in which she had come back from 2–5 down in the third set, about how she was trying to be more positive, regardless of the score. Now, looking at the clay, she picked her racket up and and apologised to a crowd which had begun to whistle. Then she turned towards the net and played on.
She lost that game, and the set went to a tie-break, in which Mladenovic took every chance, refused to lose, and prevailed.
It felt just like Miami, but it wasn’t the same.
In the final set, sometime in the third game, Simona sprinted from the back of the court towards a drop shot. She reached it in time, but Mladenovic returned the ball. Simona ran back and lobbed the French, who appeared not to be expecting such a shot. It was the game in which Simona took the lead. From there on there was no looking back.
After a match almost three hours long, voted the second best of the year, Simona once again let her racket slip from her hands as she threw them in the air. She had won her first tournament in nine months and had defended, for the first time, a title she had won the previous year. From the podium, smothered in blue and white confetti, she looked for Cahill in the crowd. He was back in Simona’s box.
“Thanks for supporting me all the time. In fact, thanks for coming back, after Miami.”
Cahill had decided to leave her on her own. He had repeated the same thing so many times — work on your attitude, work on your attitude — but he wasn’t getting through to her. They hadn’t spoken in public about it, but for the previous six weeks she had been without a coach.
“After Miami, he stopped working with me because he was upset about that match,” Simona told the WTA website after Madrid. “It wasn’t because I lost, but because of my attitude and him feeling like I gave up. That’s why I started to work hard on my mentality, and my psychology. Today, I showed it’s a new Simo, that I don’t give up anymore, even if I lose a close second set. It makes me proud that I was able to change this in such a short time.”
Simona was ashamed of how she had reacted in Miami, so immediately afterwards she looked up Silviu Zancu, whom she had worked with when she was 17, before winning the junior trophy at Roland Garros. Nearly 60, Zancu, an ex-tennis player, is now a commentator, a teacher and a mental coach. Since 2000, he has worked with sportspeople, but also business leaders and students in Aeronautical Engineering, where he teaches courses on ‘The Human Factor in Aviation’ and ‘Human Performance and its Limits.’ For three weeks, in April, he talked to Simona almost daily. “She was very, very preoccupied,” he says. “I don’t think she did much else except reflect on things.”
Mental coaching, defined as a means by which a person is encouraged to evolve, was developed according to a methodology first devised by Timothy Gallwey in the 1970s. In his book The Inner Game of Tennis, Gallwey talks about what happens when the mind gets in the way of the body and anxiety sabotages athletic performance. The secret of victory for athletes, Gallwey claims, is to not try too hard. To play without being self-critical of one’s shots and choices, because when an athlete begins to think too much, tension can take over the mind, and body.
After hours and hours of training, the body knows how to hit the ball well, but it can’t do so if the muscles are tense and the mind is blurred. Coaches recall how, since her teens, Simona has had moments when, if she was not winning points and dominating her opponent, she began to look lost. Her eyes growing big and her hands shaking, she started to hurry. When she makes mistakes she sometimes becomes discouraged, she told us in an interview at the end of November. It also happens that, at the end of a match, she feels she should have won. She knows immediately when she plays badly, when she doesn’t have the right attitude or when her opponent is too good. She knows what she needs to do, but sometimes finds it difficult to put it into practice. “Being angry, being agitated or panicking a bit about the score, you don’t have the strength, or a clear enough mind to be able to change things during a match,” she told us. “But I try to change things as much as I can, because that’s what makes the difference between an ordinary player, and one who wants to be a champion.”
If players start thinking they have hit the ball badly, writes Gallwey, they begin to ask themselves why, and try to correct it. They give themselves instructions, then reevaluate the result. The body remains tense, the mind becomes more and more agitated. And so they make another mistake. Soon they begin to shout that a lob should have been a drop, or a cross shot should have been hit down the line instead. Once, twice, the frustration grows. It doesn’t take long until players decide that, in fact, they are bad. That is what Simona recently screamed at herself on court, after a cross shot which she hit into the net:
“Hit it down the line, stupid!”
Tennis is packed with players who destroy rackets, shout and scream at umpires, at themselves or at the crowd. Serena Williams does it sometimes, Roger Federer used to do it, Andy Murray still does. Sometimes, coaches play the role of a lightning-rod for frustrations which build up during a match. That’s why the conversation between Simona and Cahill in Miami was nothing out of the ordinary in tennis, where coaches can be called on court only to be sent straight back to the stands, to be chided for not applauding or watching the game, or even be told that they are idiots.
When they manage to play without judging themselves, players achieve a state of relaxed concentration, of grace, of flow. Simona had such a period in 2013 when she won six tournaments and climbed from 64 to 11 in the world rankings. She was no longer thinking about how she was playing, nor about the score. “When the tournament was over, I still wanted to play. Although I was tired, it was a pleasure to be on court and to fight for every point.” She knows that when her mind is relaxed, she plays better. It is, however, a difficult state of mind for a perfectionist to achieve. “You always think about the lost points,” she said. “Especially the easy ones which you really wanted to take in order to close out a game.”
When you are used to being hard on yourself, when you want everything to be perfect and you ache to be the best, when you see that you are close, but you can’t quite get there, when you lose a point you thought you should have won, it’s difficult not to doubt yourself. It is perhaps even harder when your game depends on your emotional state of mind as much as Simona’s does. How much, Zancu asked her. On a scale of one to 10 players usually say eight.
Simona didn’t hesitate: 10.
Self-criticism is part of Simona’s success. She is self-critical because she wants to be better, and knows that she can be. The high expectations she has of herself, the same high expectations that make her throw her racket on the floor, also bring her back to practice when things don’t work out in a match. They are the same high expectations which make her cling on by her fingertips to matches that are almost lost, and which have created her reputation as a fighter. The nervous tics, the grumbling, the stares all demonstrate that she doesn’t go on court to lose. “They are signs that she is determined and knows exactly what she wants,” says Cosmin Hodor, operational director at Stejarii Country Club, the gated complex built by Ion Țiriac near the Băneasa forest outside Bucharest, where Simona trains and lives when she is in Romania. “It’s clear that in the long term, these nerves consume your energy, they eat you up inside. But they also have positive effects, if you can control them.”
After working with Zancu for three weeks, Simona went to Mamaia on the Romanian coast for a Fed Cup play-off match against Great Britain. She was due to play Konta again. Few people in Romania watched the women’s international competition Fed Cup before Simona’s generation, which also includes Sorana Cîrstea, Irina Begu, Monica Niculescu and Alexandra Dulgheru, got promoted to the World Group in 2015. It quickly became a big deal. Some players, such as Niculescu and Cîrstea, feed off the energy of the public and manage to surpass themselves at home. For an introvert such as Simona, playing in front of the Romanians who both love her and fiercely criticise her can add extra pressure.
Simona came to Mamaia in a positive mood. She trained well, smiles all round. In front of the packed stands at the IDU Tennis Club where she once played as a junior, she easily won both matches: she beat Heather Watson 6–4, 6–1, and then in a replay of Miami, she defeated Johanna Konta 6–1, 6–3.
But it wasn’t just her game. She also intervened off court, during a tense moment in the stands. During Cîrstea’s match with Konta, the British player paused the game, annoyed at something which had been shouted at her from the stands. Ilie Năstase, at that time the Romanian Fed Cup team captain, angrily intervened, and Konta told the umpire that Năstase had called her a “fucking bitch.” The umpire sent the former player to the stands, at which point the Romanian called him a “fucking asshole.”
Once the match got back under way, Konta began to cry on court, saying that she had been verbally abused by the Romanian crowd. The match was interrupted once more. Then, Simona, who was watching from the sidelines, used a microphone to speak to the crowd:
“We have to respect each other, to play in the spirit of fair-play. It is just a game of tennis and the match is played on court. Please respect both players. Please.”
It was a moment in which the best Romanian player assumed her role as leader and understood the importance of her voice.
Her game, but especially her attitude at the Fed Cup, then Stuttgart where she made the semifinals convinced Cahill to return. With him back by her side, fit and having won the Madrid trophy, Simona was ready to restart her season.
All eyes were on her in June at Roland Garros, the second Grand Slam of the year. She began as third seed, in the absence of pregnant Serena Williams, of new mum Victoria Azarenka and of Maria Sharapova, who had fallen down the rankings after 15 months of suspension for doping.
In the first four rounds Simona did not lose a single set. In the quarter final she won even though she was 5–1 down in the second set and a point from defeat. In the semi-final she beat the world number three Karolina Pliskova, a Czech with an amazing serve who said after the match that she would have beaten 99 percent of players, but had the misfortune to come up against Simona.
It was her second Roland Garros final, after the one she’d lost to Sharapova in 2014. But now Simona was the favourite. When a reporter asked her how proud she was of her results so far she interrupted him and said the tournament wasn’t over yet. She seemed not to conceive leaving without the trophy.
She was playing against the surprise of the tournament, the Latvian Jelena Ostapenko, just 20 and yet to win a WTA title. The stakes were higher for the Romanian: not only would a win give her a first Grand Slam, it would also make her the world number one.
On June 10, around 15,000 people packed the stands in Paris. In Bucharest and Cluj, thousands more gathered in public squares and parks to watch the game on huge screens. Millions more watched on television. On the scorching Paris clay Simona won in less than an hour the first set and then the first three games of the second one. She then had three break points which would have taken the set to 4–0.
Ostapenko served — not great — but Simona chose not to take any risks and returned the ball centre court. The Latvian took control of the point and won it. Then she took control of the match, playing with the nonchalance of someone who has nothing to lose. Some shots went out, others landed in corners where Simona couldn’t reach them, no matter how fast she slid on the clay. By the end, Ostapenko had committed 54 unforced errors compared to just 10 for Simona, but she had also hit 54 winners, as opposed to just eight for the Romanian.
It was a difficult defeat for fans. Some said she hadn’t been brave enough, hadn’t taken enough risks, was afraid of winning. “She should have hit that return harder than ever,” said journalist Cristian Tudor Popescu. “But at the last moment she softened the blow.” On the other hand, fans offered explanations: Simona, just 1.68 m tall, a player who likes to build points, had no chance against a big hitting 1.77 m opponent who hits the ball at an average of 122 km/h.
There was also a third chorus of opinion: the one that always blames “the Romanian mentality of cracking just when victory is at hand”. “We Romanians have been asking ourselves for 100 years: is this all we can do? Are we not fed up of always being on the edge of glory?” wrote somebody on Facebook. “When a people has fatalist poems like Miorița and Monastirea Argeșului as its models, and when we take pride in having poisoned wells, burnt houses and hid in the forest, you can’t really expect much more,” remarked somebody else. “We are brought up and taught to accept defeat, and yet we expect victory.”
Simona Halep’s rise to the top is the greatest Romanian sports story of the past few years. Born to a family of Aromanians in Constanța, she first came to the fore in 2008 when she won the junior title at Roland Garros. In her first few years as a senior however, she only caught the media attention when, at 17, she had an operation to reduce the size of her breasts in order to ease her back pains and make it easier to get around the court. Away from the spotlight she took small, careful steps towards the summit, like a climber banging metal supports into a rock.
She entered the top 100 in 2010, and in the following year got close to top 50. She became a phenomenon in 2013, when she enjoyed her first victories over the world’s best players and got close to top 10. The next year, 2014, was even better: she became the first Romanian to make the world top five, she reached the final at Roland Garros and at the end of the year she won a bewildering 6–0, 6–2 against Serena Williams, a player 10 years older and already the winner of 18 Grand Slam titles.
Tennis aficionados fell in love with her elegant backhand, her surprising speed and creative game. Fans who follow her every move (1.3 million on Facebook) discovered a young girl who likes Romanian pop star Smiley, Julia Roberts and Andrea Bocelli; she likes pizza, chocolate and pumpkin pie, she enjoys shopping, dancing at family parties, and watching the Turkish soap opera Istanbul Bride. She likes to take photos with her team and to post selfies on Instagram with the hashtags #dontforgettosmile and #bestlife.
And yet, as much as she gets praised when she wins — Romania’s former prime minister Victor Ponta wanted to gain popularity on social media when he used a photo of Simona to make a connection with his electoral slogan, ‘Proud to be Romanian’ -, she is criticised fiercely after every defeat, and sometimes for her off-court decisions. The honeymoon period with the Romanian public ended in 2015 when she skipped a Fed Cup match for which she was supposed to fly to Canada. She had just completed her fourth tournament in a month with no break, had won a title, had suffered a death in the family and chose to stay at home. It was said that she had turned her back on her country, that she was only interested in playing for money, that lucky draws helped her make it to the top, that she didn’t fight till the end and often lost embarrassingly.
“Some of the things written about her were devastating,” says Adrian Țoca, the founder of tennis website treizecizero.ro, who has closely documented Halep’s career. “Even now there are some harsh comments, but back then, while we were still thinking about what a great player we had, some of what was written really shocked us.”
The constant criticism soon began to take its toll on Simona, who in six months had transformed from a virtual unknown to Romania’s most followed athlete. “It’s as if you are throwing rocks at a wall made of plasticine: every one leaves a trace,” says Irina Păcurariu, a journalist at the Romanian public television who interviewed Halep recently and was left with the impression that the tennis star hols up her strength, beyond the “vulnerability she betrays in her superb eyes.”
In time, Simona has learned to accept that criticism is part of her success and that being loved by Romanians carries with it expectations and pressure. In 2014, the first time that we wrote about her, she said that she didn’t read the press anymore, although she always found out from those around her what the media was writing. “I am really not interested, because one moment they criticise you after a defeat, the next they are praising you and are proud of you because you’re Romanian.”
Cahill has also helped her to distance herself from public opinion. She met him in 2015 through an Adidas project, via which players under contract with the brand benefit from expert advice at a number of tournaments each year. At the end of 2015, Simona brought him to her team as her full-time coach. Cahill, who helped Andre Agassi, as well as Lleyton Hewitt, reach world number one, told treizecizero.ro that he had taken on a role with Halep because he liked how she asked questions, listened to what he had to say, thought about things and wrote down conclusions “as if it was the most important thing in her life.”
Simona had worked with four coaches during the preceding three years and had admitted that she sometimes found it difficult to accept advice from people she did not trust, or whom she didn’t feel were on the same page with her. She now calls Cahill “the best coach” on Instagram and says that his on-court speech is “almost perfect”. She appreciates that he believes in her and his relaxed style seems to help her off court as well. “She is more open now and more willing to try new things: a new restaurant, new food, a museum,” says Daniel Dobre, a coach who was occasionally part of Simona’s team, in an interview with treizecizero.ro. “She was not always like that. She’s changed.”
You can see this best on her Instagram feed: celebrating victories with ice cream, stroking kangaroos in Australia, playing with her niece, reading Malcolm Gladwell or watching TV series in airports. Then there are photos with her sponsors — Adidas, Hublot, Mercedes, Dorna — and with the important people in her life: her manager Virginia Ruzici, her agent for 10 years, Teo Cercel, the physio responsible for keeping her in shape (her opponents claim she could run a marathon), Ion Țiriac, Nadia Comăneci, former footballer Bogdan Stelea and Cosmin Hodor, the manager of the Stejarii Country Club (where Simona covers the tennis lessons and the equipment for 50 kids aged 6–8 who can’t afford them).
She also seems more relaxed in public appearances and press conferences, where journalists appreciate her honesty and sense of humour. (Once she told them to hurry up, because she had a chocolate mousse waiting for her; another time she handed them beer after a victory). But besides tournaments and sponsor duties, interviews with her are rare. She’s difficult to reach, and the people close to her hesitate or refuse to talk about her. When she is greeted by Romanian journalists at the airport, her stare becomes piercing, her sentences short, her smile contained. It’s easier to describe her attitude as arrogant than to try to understand what it would be like to grow up in the public eye. What it would be like if the whole world witnessed your failures and had an opinion about them.
Paris was the most crushing defeat of her career. She felt she could almost touch the trophy, but couldn’t take it home. Instead of hiding in a corner to cry, she had to wait for the prize ceremony, and so she sat on her chair, staring into space. Then she climbed on the podium, next to the new champion, Ostapenko. She received her trophy for second place, and looked up into the stands, at her team. “It’s a tough day, because we couldn’t win,” she told them. “But let’s keep working, and let’s believe. I can say now that I’ve been sick in the stomach with emotions for playing this final, so maybe I was not ready to win it.”
If in Mamaia she took on the role of leader, in Paris she took in her stride a defeat which might have knocked others down. At the press conference, where it was visible that she had been crying, she said that she had got so close to the Grand Slam because she had worked for 20 years, and she would continue to work, so she would get more moments like this in the future.
After Paris she had three other chances to become world number one.
She could have taken the top ranking if she had won at Eastbourne at the end of June. But she lost in the quarter final, defeated in three sets by Caroline Wozniacki, on a day on which both players had to play two matches, because of rain delays.
She could have taken the top ranking a week later, if she had qualified for the Wimbledon semi-finals at the third Grand Slam of the year. In the quarter final she met Konta, again. The match was tight, again, with long rallies, surprising cross shots and hidden angles found by both players on tennis’ most famous grass arena. Simona again won the first set and closed in on victory: she was two points away. But after an unforced error into the net, Konta turned the tie-break around and won the match.
She could have taken the top ranking again in mid-August, if she had won the final in Cincinnati. Before it began, she asked her brother in a text message if it was true that she was just five points away from the number one spot, an insignificant difference given that victory would have brought her 1000 points. “Five points, it’s incredible,” she replied. “Can you imagine?”
When you are number two, just five points from achieving your life’s dream, and you know that your whole home country is watching you, it is difficult to imagine just how wobbly your knees can become, and how heavy a tennis racket gets. Especially when you are your own worst critic. In the final with Garbine Muguruza, the new WImbledon champion who was also looking to become world number one, Halep lost 1–6, 0–6, her heaviest and most criticised defeat of the year. Again it was written that she had made a fool of herself, that she couldn’t get over whatever mental blocks she has, that she had thrown the match, that she didn’t fight, that she simply can’t do any better.
“It’s worth looking not just at what this girl has done in her mind to get to where she is today, but also at the emotions she stirs in others, in the public who follows her. Why do we follow her so intently?” asks Alis Anagnostakis, a trainer specialising in cultural organisation and leadership. We filter her career through our own values and convictions, and end up taking every frustration and defeat personally, Anagnostakis says. “It’s difficult to come to terms with your own limitations, sometimes even with your own mediocrity.”
This is why Halep gets so many nasty remarks regarding the “Romanian mentality”. Asked on the news channel Digi24 about Simona’s critics, Romanian film director Nae Caranfil, spoke of the “Romanian negative exceptionalism, which makes people feel the need to claim that they were unlucky enough to be born in the worst possible country.” It is an attitude which brings to the surface the deficiencies of Romanian DNA, which anthropologist Vintilă Mihăilescu described on the opinion website Republica: “We are racist with ourselves: we describe ourselves as having been born inferior and that’s that. It is a kind of ancient genetic fatalism which has evolved to take on a more modern form.”
Simona feels its full force. She believes that we should not be so negative about our mistakes. “We need to persevere and to believe,” she told us. “If we do not believe then we have no chance. That does not mean that if I believe I will win a Grand Slam it will happen. But I have to believe, to allow myself to have hope. I believe that in life, hope is one of the most important things.”
When she wins, Simona gives us hope that we can all go beyond what we thought possible. When she loses, when she gives up, when she makes a mistake, we see our own defects, but we direct our anger at her, because she’s the one who should have been showing us how we can be better. “On the one hand even the love [for Simona] is exaggerated,” says Țoca, “but for me the worst insult you can direct at an athlete is to say that you do not believe in them. And not just athletes: anyone who is good at what they do. But we are a nation of unbelievers in this respect.”
We, Romanians, are an unbelieving nation, and also a critical one, say sports psychologists. We are critical with her, and with others, because we were raised in an educational system based on fear of making mistakes. We are also a country that is not used to having too much success in sports, and which does not understand what high-performance means. Apart from tennis, handball and fencing, Romanians do not really have any great hopes for sporting success, or any kind of success. We need victory — any kind of victory — so much that defeat, whether it comes when you are the world number two or world number 100 — becomes a national tragedy.
At the end of the summer, Simona’s year seemed to be — according to Facebook feeds and the media — a year of defeats. A sports newspaper described it as “a year of missed opportunities,” while on a radio station they spoke of “the girl who never finishes what she starts.” In fact, in 2017 Simona won almost three times as many matches as she lost (45 wins, 17 defeats), a percentage strikingly similar to the previous three years. In July, after Serena Williams went on maternity leave, the Romanian became the active player with the most weeks in top 10.
But for the games she wins in the opening rounds of tournaments we do not get together in bars, nor go out on the streets to celebrate. In a sport with weekly tournaments, even the very best players will lose some matches, usually semi-finals and finals. When they do get that far though, they receive more ranking points, even if they lose — for reaching the French Open final, Simona got 1300 points, compared to 1000 for Madrid, where she won. That’s how you can stay on top, even if from outside it appears that all you do is lose.
On top of that, the rankings are not reset at the beginning of the year. Points are added or taken away according to how many were won in the same tournament a year before, making consistency crucial. A player can climb the rankings spectacularly, as Ostapenko did this year, then fall just as quickly. (Angelique Kerber, number one at the beginning of 2017 ended the year 19th, while Dominika Cibulková, in the top five in 2016, is now 26th).
To remain on top year after year means to play close to your best every day, even if you constantly change the time zone, the hotel rooms and the food, and you only have a couple of days of holiday. This also requires mental strength, not just the ability to hit a tennis ball well when you are leading 3–0.
Simona’s ranking has not fallen since she first climbed into the top 10 in 2013, but has instead continued to climb. Step by step, bit by bit, as she has always done everything. Climbing slowly she has been able to gather the confidence she needs for the next step. She has not always been convinced of her talent. Her father has always told her that she is the best, but she found it difficult to believe him. At the end of 2013 she told us: “Everyone was telling me, but I did not believe them. I worked a lot, that much I know. I have talent, maybe, but I have also had to work hard. Being serious, having ambition: it works when these things come together.”
Confidence is important for all players, but it seems to be even more important for her, says Louisa Thomas, tennis writer for The New Yorker. Because when you are emotional, the first thing that go away are the legs, which Simona depends on more than other taller, stronger players. But also because the vulnerability of her confidence shows a human side of herself that athletes do not always reveal, says Thomas. The writer always thought that Simona could get to the top, from the moment she first saw her play. But she also felt that her mind could be her biggest strength and weakness. Many athletes can isolate their emotions, telling themselves everything is OK even when things are not OK. She doesn’t see this in Simona. “I don’t think she’s able to tell herself things are OK when things are not OK. She’s able to turn things around sometimes. But not from a kind of willful ignorance.”
There are fans and tennis folk who identify with Simona precisely because of this vulnerability, because she often has to fight with her lack of self-belief. They hear her calling herself is “damn stupid” and remember all the times they have done the same thing. They see her buckling under pressure and think about their cakes which always come out perfect, except when they are expecting guests. And then they see that she does not give up. “An absurd amount of my time as a tennis analyst is spent quietly wondering why Simona is so mad at any given time. It’s what I find so incredibly relatable and endearing about her,” a journalist who writes for the WTA website posted on Twitter. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Simona,” former number one Tracy Austin told ESPN.com. “She just kept biding her time, even though she missed out three times this year when the top ranking was within touching distance. That would have crushed many people, but she just kept working.”
Simona came up against her most difficult opponent in September, at the US Open, the last Grand Slam of the year. Former world number one Maria Sharapova, back in the game after the doping ban, had received a disputed wild card despite being ranked 146. Fans of the Romanian hoped that this would finally be the moment when Halep won, after six defeats.
Under the New York arena lights, Sharapova appeared in a black dress embellished with Swarovski crystals and lace. She marked her return to the circuit by playing the same aggressive and dramatic game, accompanied by the same intimidating screams. Simona was again close, but lost in three sets, let down by the weakest part of her game, her serve.
Being a foot shorter than every other opponent in the top 10, Simona will always have problems with her serve. In 2017 she served 96 aces, whereas others in the top five served an average of 200 (Pliskova served 452). Her biggest assets are her legs and her head, says Andrei Cociașu, a former training partner. “Her game consists of putting pressure on her opponents until they break and start making mistakes.” Instead of trying to hit winners every time, as some big-hitters do — such as Ostapenko, Konta, Sharapova — she prefers to build points, to anticipate the rally and feel the game. “Players who hit the ball as hard as they can from the start do not love tennis,” says Zancu. “Simona has a feel for the pleasure of sport, for movement.”
However, a game based on building points and waiting for opponents mistakes is not always enough, says Cristian Tudor Popescu, who has told her many times, both privately and in public, to get closer to the net. “There are opponents whom you need to sting with a winner whenever you have the chance, otherwise they can recover. Simona doesn’t have the attack in her blood, she is not a shotmaker, and that probably comes from her childhood and adolescence, her education and the environment in which she was raised, where she lived with the fear of making herself look silly.”
Cahill believes that change will come slowly. She will naturally increase the force of her strokes, and improve her risk management. “She already knows when she is playing too carefully,” said the coach after Wimbledon in an interview for treizecizero.ro. “She knows when she is getting pushed to the back of the court. She is an intelligent player who can adjust her game better and better. She is closer and closer to taking that final step.”
After the US Open defeat, Simona went back to work. She trained an extra hour every day just on her serve, with Andrei Pavel, a former world number 13 who she brought in as assistant coach. She practiced serve after serve after serve, until she had sores on her hands. She told Romanian national television that she had to work more than ever, even though she was already known as a hard working player. Ion Țiriac told her the same. The former player talks to her about tennis, goes to matches and sometimes turns up at the practice court he had put up at Stejarii especially for her. (It’s a hard surface like the one at US Open, and is called “Simona Halep”). “Țiriac is not easily impressed,” says Hodor. “Making the top 10 does not impress him, because there were a million before you.”
It was also after the US Open that Simona posted a photo on Instagram of her physio Teo Cercel, with a message for Cahill: “No more Sundays off.” She doesn’t take days off after big wins anymore either. “I am more professional now, I want to find out where my limit is.”
She met Sharapova again at the beginning of October, in the third round in Beijing. Again she could have made world number one, but she told journalists that she didn’t think it was going to happen this year. “It’s gone.” She began the match at great pace, and broke the Russian to love in the first game. She continued at speed, sending hard strokes left and right that Sharapova either couldn’t reach or sent back into the net. With her powerful arms controlling her racket well, with her cherry red, size 36 Adidas shoes digging into the baseline or racing to the net, with her green eyes fixed on the yellow ball, she pressed on. However hard Sharapova hit the ball, Simona found a way to return it. Commentators wondered if they were watching the Romanian’s finest ever game. She ran, she jumped, she dived. And she served much better.
She won 6–2, 6–2. She raised a clenched fist in the air and smiled towards her box. It was one of the most important victories of her career, a barrier cleared, another brick in her wall of confidence. She followed it with another big win, 6–2, 6–1 against Daria Kasatkina, to whom she had lost only a week previously. Then, in the semi-final, came another match with Jelena Ostapenko.
It was October 7, the last day of China Golden Week, a national holiday. It was a cold day, with the sky mildly polluted and only two-thirds of the stands full. It was the fourth time when Simona was playing to reach the world number one spot. She won the first set and then led 3–2 in the second before the Latvian broke her serve and pulled level.
In the stands a Chinese journalist wondered if he was watching a repeat of Paris. Throughout the season Simona had talked in interviews about the break points she had lost in the Roland Garros final. Points she kept replaying every night before she slept. Now she took a step forward and attacked the Latvian’s second serve every time she could. Just as in the match against Sharapova, she served much better and hit the ball more decisively, and was soon in the position to serve for the match.
“A massive chance to erase some long held demons,” said a commentator as Simona prepared to serve, bouncing the ball three times. She threw it up in the air and hit it over the net. She twice sent Ostapenko to her right, penning her in the corner of the court, then closed out with a backhand down the line to her left. Eyes closed and head back, she raised her arms to the heavens and smiled.
At 26 and 10 days she was, finally, world number one.
Of course, not everyone was happy. Especially as the next day Simona lost the Beijing final. Nevermind that it was a tight match in which her opponent had one of those days when everything comes good, the choir of disapproval began again. She was called an unconvincing world number one, even an unworthy and undeserving number one. (She is in fact the seventh player to become world number one without having won a Grand Slam).
It’s true that favourable circumstances played their part in Simona’s climb to the top. With no Williams, Sharapova or Azarenka, the season was forever in flow, and three players hit the number one spot for the first time: Pliskova in June, Muguruza in September and Simona in October. Ahead of the WTA Finals Tournament in Singapore, eight players had the chance to finish the year as number one, a rare state of affairs.
There, Simona lost two games out of three and was knocked out in the group stages. She managed to hang on to the number one spot however, as none of the other players who could have overtaken her managed to win the tournament. At a time when tennis lacks clear favourites and dominant players, the Romanian’s consistency won.
And yet she didn’t make number one purely by luck, but because she strived to always be better, both physically and mentally. Because, as she says, she trained harder. Because, as Cahill says, she is stronger than she thinks. Because, as commentators observed, she dared to attack and risk and win. Because she surrounded herself with a team of professionals she trusts, and because she was always supported by her family. Because she took control of her own career, she went to war with her own weaknesses and coached herself to become mentally stronger, which in turn allowed her to make better use of her body.
If you ask her, she doesn’t think that anything in particular made her win in Beijing, simply that the hours of training paid off at important moments in important matches. “I don’t have a weapon because I am not tall enough, and I can’t really say that I have a winning stroke. But I have made great progress on my serve and that has helped me to take control of points.” And because she has been learning to temper her ambition. “I think that in sport it’s good to aim high,” she told us, “to surpass your limits” but “if you always want more, always think about wanting more, you can lose sight of what’s important and no longer love what you are doing.”
She knows what she wants to work on. When it comes to her game, she wants more variation, to get to the net more. The biggest challenge remain her emotions. “I want to work on my attitude, to be calmer, and kinder to myself. And not to criticise myself so often. That’s my objective.”
This seems to be a neverending battle. In her last match of the year, in Singapore, Simona again called Cahill down from the stands.
– What am I playing? It’s a disaster, she told him before he had even sat down.
She breathed in deeply, sighed and then explained to her coach that she wasn’t feeling the ball or the court. She listened to his advice — to use her feet, to stay in the point, to move around more at the back of the court, to zig-zag more — and then played on, but didn’t win.
At the end of the tournament she received a trophy with 13 diamonds, being the 13th player in history to end the year as world number one. Sitting on a chair on a podium, wearing an elegant dress with heeled sandals, she told journalists that she was happy she had fulfilled her dream, but she has others. She said that the two words that describe her journey to the top are: difficult and extraordinary. She told them that she knows the pressure will only grow, but that all she can ask from herself is to play as well as she can. She told them that she watches Roger Federer, who at 36 is playing better than ever (“crazy good”), and learns from him that you can always improve something — even when everything seems perfect. There is no limit.