Popular new No.1 Halep describes journey to the top

Published by Linda Pearce

Simona Halep poses with her No.1 bouquet and members of the WTA after beating Jelena Ostapenko in the semifinals in Beijing; Getty Images
Simona Halep’s long and winding road to the top of women’s tennis was greeted with an outpouring of support from the tennis community.

Amid the ongoing game of musical chairs otherwise known as the battle for the WTA’s No.1 ranking, genuine goodwill has greeted the weekend confirmation that Simona Halep would become the fifth woman this season – and 25th overall – to take a turn in top spot. Not least because of just how close she has been, and how agonisingly she had fallen just short.

“Long time coming”, Boris Becker tweeted, while the congratulatory message from another former teen prodigy, Tracy Austin, noted that “the tougher the journey, the sweeter the victory”. From 18-time major winner, Chris Evert: “Heartbreak to get there, but well-deserved.”

Halep had been in this position three times previously in the past four months, only to stumble at the final hurdle. The dual French Open finalist had logged the lengthiest stretch in the top 10 among active players (since January, 2014), while unable to complete the last step to No.1. Little wonder that her legs were shaking when match point came in her China Open semifinal against Jelena Ostapenko, her Roland Garros tormentor.

RELATED: Simona Halep is the new No.1

“My dream is true now,’’ Halep said later. “In that moment you cannot believe hundred percent that it’s happening. So, yeah, I was in tears a little bit. Maybe first time on court nice tears, because otherwise, yeah, I had some.

“I cannot describe what I felt. Of course, it’s the best moment in my life, and I want just to keep it.’’

Yet while her improved serve was the key physical element, more notable for Halep has been the mental overhaul that followed an embarrassing performance against Jo Konta earlier this year in Miami. “I can say I’m proud of this because I really accepted that I have an issue. I was working hard on it,’’ she said.

“Of course, all the people around me help me a lot. One very special lady told me how to do, how to change myself, so thank you to her. Also my team, they always believed that I can change myself. I started to believe, as well.’’

The newest member of that tight-knit group is her fellow Constanta native and a former childhood idol Andrei Pavel, who will augment her Adelaide-based Australian coach Darren Cahill and act as a practice partner during Halep’s stretches at home.

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Cahill’s role has been widely acknowledged, and there is no doubting the impact he has made on the third player under his tutelage – after a young Lleyton Hewitt and the late-career Andre Agassi – to become No.1. The uncompromising Cahill has overseen the attitude overhaul and greater positivity, and after Miami this year was principled enough to briefly walk away when some bad old habits returned.

He was poached from Team Adidas on an exclusive contract at the end of 2015, and in Singapore that October just after the deal had been done, she was already sporting an amusingly broad-accented version of “G’day mate”, and had finally discovered the identity of that mysterious thing Australians like to call “brekky”.

She also wanted to learn to be a winner, with the diminutive baseliner and fine mover speaking of her desire to work with Cahill to improve “everything”, but placing particular emphasis on her strength and her serve. She was No.2 then.

It has taken almost two years, and that maiden Grand Slam remains elusive, but top spot is now hers.

“In this moment, I just want to be happy because I’m there. Doesn’t matter how long I will stay,’’ she said. “Of course, it’s one of the dreams, to stay longer there, to not affect myself too much. I don’t want to get relaxed.

“Of course, it’s a great thing. Many others did it, and I’m one of them. I’m really happy about that. But I’m in the middle of my career, so I have many years ahead. I just want to stay the same, focused, and do my job.’’

Back on social media: “Halep makes history”, enthused a retired Romanian who could claim to know a little about these things: Nadia Comaneci. But one of the public acknowledgements that will mean the most was from Cahill, who declared with a smile and a fist bump “Great player. Great young lady. Well done Simo! A day to remember forever.’’ Indeed.

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