Sport

Simona Halep: ‘I told my family I was done with tennis – but I still love it’

In a sport filled with so much uncertainty, where anyone can beat anyone else on any given day, for so long Simona Halep was one of the few pillars of consistency at the top of women’s tennis. She landed inside the top 10 aged 22 in 2014 and for seven and a half years she stayed. During those seasons, Halep built a hall-of-fame career: two grand slam titles; 23 WTA titles overall; 64 weeks at world No 1.

Despite her early timidity and doubt, Halep was always present. She was always brave enough to front up to the next challenge and give her all, even in the knowledge that it could mean falling.

That is what made last season so difficult. For the first time in her career, she could not even show up. “It was the toughest year of my life,” the 30-year-old says in an interview early in the grass court season in Birmingham.

“I had that injury that I didn’t know how to handle. It was the biggest injury in my life, so it was really tough. I missed two grand slams. I was four months away. So it was not easy to handle and to manage.”

Last May, Halep was playing against Angelique Kerber in Rome when she tore her calf muscle, eventually retiring from the match. The first significant injury of her career ended her 373-week tenure in the top 10 since 2014, the eighth longest consecutive run in WTA history, and her time away from the sport took her mind to difficult places. She began to question what remained of her career: “I didn’t know if my body would hold anymore,” she says.

During the off-season, her doubts festered and the positive front she put on at the beginning of 2022 crumbled. She concluded that retirement was likely imminent: “I played well in Australia. But then after I lost in Doha, I was down again. I actually told my family and my close ones that I probably am done with tennis because I felt like I have no more power to fight and to stay there to be resilient,” says Halep.

Resilience is a characteristic that has come to define Halep’s career. It was already present when she was a child in the port city of Constanta, Romania, without any kind of system, pathway or recent role model. “Everything I had was from my parents,” she says. “So it was not easy. It’s not easy when you play with this pressure, because it’s your family’s money. But now I’m more satisfied that we did it together.”

It was also essential when she had established herself in the top 10 and began to chase her ultimate dreams. From 2014, Halep reached three grand slam finals and brutally lost them all.

There was an instant classic three-setter against Maria Sharapova at the French Open in 2014. Next came an excruciating loss to newcomer Jelena Ostapenko in the 2017 final at Roland Garros after Halep led 3-0 with a break point in the third set. Then, after a string of marathons at the 2018 Australian Open, Halep’s efforts in her tight three-set loss to Caroline Wozniacki left her in hospital on an intravenous drip.

The pursuit of a grand slam title broke her body down, but somehow it actually fortified her mind.

“I was so close most of the time,” she says, smiling. “I really wanted it. I was depressed after I lost them. But after 2018 Australia, I didn’t feel bad. I said that it’s gonna come. So there I got the confidence that I’m very close to it. And if I don’t give up, it will happen.”

Such brutal defeats would have killed the spirit of many great players. In order to explain why that was not the case for her, Halep recalls a recent conversation she had with Patrick Mouratoglou, her new coach: “He asked me if I really believed when I was a kid that I would be a champion, winning a grand slam and being No 1. I said: ‘I never said it. And I never trusted it [enough to be] vocal, loud.’ But inside, by not giving up, I think I knew that I had the chance to do it. So, probably, I trusted myself.”

Only with time has she come to understand that beneath that timidity and perfectionism, her inner self-belief is formidable. She won her first grand slam final at the first opportunity after her defeat to Wozniacki, beating Sloane Stephens at the French Open.

A year later, Halep exceeded her own wildest expectations, dismantling Serena Williams 6-2, 6-2 in the 2019 Wimbledon final to win her second grand slam title, and on grass, the surface that for so long did not suit her. Halep considers it the closest she has ever come to executing the perfect match and by the end of the tournament, she “felt like I kind of own the court”. She has never tired of discussing it.

Simona Halep returns to Serena Williams on Centre Court
Simona Halep on her way to victory over Serena Williams in the 2019 Wimbledon final. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Wimbledon was one of the two grand slams that Halep’s calf injury forced her out of last year, meaning this tournament will mark her return to SW19 for the first time since her victory, and she has been handed a brutal first-round draw against Karolina Muchova. The Czech reached the top 20 last year and the semi-final of the Australian Open, beating Ash Barty on the way. At the French Open last month, Muchova defeated the world No 3 Maria Sakkari in the second round. She is only unseeded due to the various injuries she sustained over the past 18 months, including a rolled ankle in Paris.

With defending champion Barty’s absence, the All England club must decide whether Halep will open the second day’s play. Whatever happens, she is just glad to be back.

“Slowly, I just tried to see if I still want it,” she says. “And I felt like I wanted it but it was very difficult. So now that I met Patrick [it] made it a little bit easier. And now I’m really motivated. And I have that desire to keep playing because I feel I can and I feel that I still love it.”

Halep’s partnership with Mouratoglou came about after her longtime former coach Darren Cahill suggested she spend some time at his Mouratoglou Academy. Surrounded by enthusiastic young players desperate to make it to where she stood, she was refreshed. As his time coaching Serena Williams came to an end, she hired him.

The reception to his hiring has been mixed from her supporters. Some question how impactful he really was considering Williams is such a singular talent.

His penchant for self promotion, using the platforms of his players, is an irritant. In their first grand slam together at the French Open, Halep suffered a panic attack during her second round loss to Zheng Qinwen. Curiously, Mouratoglou responded to the loss by publishing a public apology on social media: “I expect much better from myself and I want to extend my apologies to her fans who have always been so supportive,” he wrote.

It is clear that Halep is fond of Mouratoglou, and she frequently references their recent discussions throughout the interview. She deeply believes that, with time, they can work well together.

“Every day I live, of course, I believe. And he believes also. So he gave me that confidence that I still can be in the top. But this doesn’t mean that it will happen. I have just to give myself a chance to give my best. And we’ll see, I’m relaxed either way, but I’m motivated to do it.”

Thus, as Wimbledon begins and its 2019 champion returns, one of the lingering questions next week and beyond is whether Halep can recover her form of old to compete for the grand slam titles again. That remains to be seen, but what is certain is that Halep will put her hopes and emotions on the line, then she’ll see where she falls. Whether joy or disappointment follows, one thing that she will never regret is the effort behind her actions.

“The pandemic came and everything changed,” she says. “So now I’m just trying to rebuild everything I had before and even stronger if it’s possible. But I take it slow, I take it easy, and just give myself time.”

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