“What do you want?”
Simona Halep averted her eyes from the nagging voice at her shoulder and took a swig of water, either unable or unwilling to respond. It was all too familiar. Up a set and a break and serving for a trip to the semifinals of the 2017 Miami Open, she had unraveled, conceding a break to her opponent—Johanna Konta—and a tiebreaker two games later. With a decisive set looming, the two players were afforded a few moments on the sideline to reset themselves, but Halep could only stew in her frustration, seemingly resigned to the inevitable. Yet, the voice persisted.
“You have the opportunity to make a difference,” Darren Cahill, Halep’s longtime coach, pleaded. “You’ve been in this position many, many times before, and most times you’ve come out second best. … So right now you have an opportunity to change things.”
Cahill’s encouragement was futile: In a meek effort, Halep dropped the third set, and the match. For most players of her caliber, such a result might have been casually brushed off; the Miami Open isn’t a legacy-defining tournament and Halep had a bout of patellar tendinitis in her left knee that had begun bothering her in late 2016. But the footage of Halep and Cahill’s conversation, and news of a subsequent professional split between the two, galvanized a fresh wave of criticism questioning the Romanian’s mental strength. As Cahill had attempted to spur Halep to victory, she could muster little more than: “This is my character. I am so bad.”
At the time, despite uncanny consistency on paper, Halep’s career was defined by unrealized potential and debilitating self-doubt. On January 27, 2014, at age 22, she seized the no. 10 ranking in the world, and she hasn’t fallen out of the top 10 since; that 231-week run is by far the longest active streak in the WTA. She has spent the last 57 of those weeks in the top two. In October, she earned her first ever world no. 1 ranking.
And yet, excruciatingly, major titles eluded her. On the final Saturday of Roland Garros in 2017, against the then-unknown 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko, Halep squandered a set-and-a-break lead, dropping 12 of the match’s final 16 games en route to a second defeat in a French Open final in four years. Seven months later, she lost in another major final, this time against world no. 2 Caroline Wozniacki at the Australian Open. Here, Halep battled back from a set down but faltered in the third all the same. She watched sullenly as fellow “Slamless Wonder” Wozniacki crumpled to the court, the burden of unfulfilled expectation floating off of her shoulders and into the inky black Melbourne sky that night. Meanwhile, Halep’s millstone weighed heavier than ever. But something in her had changed. On the heels of another crushing defeat, Halep was done writing herself off.
“I cried,” she said at her post-match press conference. “But now I’m smiling.
She hasn’t stopped since.
From a young age, Simona Halep molded her game on clay. At 5-foot-6, she is rarely overpowering, but is a fluid lateral athlete with the ability to pepper groundstrokes to every spot on the court from any position. She’s a persistence hunter: stalking, darting, and sliding from side to side, patiently wearing down her opponent until the slightest crack in their defense appears. And then she pounces.
It makes sense, then, that her moment of convalescence came at the 2018 French Open. It was almost cinematic; down a set and a break to ascendant American Sloane Stephens in the final—and appearing overmatched—Halep turned her narrative on its head. She broke back and took the match, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1. “When I was down a break in the second set,” Halep recounted in her post-match address to the Stade de France, “I thought, ‘Everything is gone. I’m going to start to relax and enjoy the match.’”
The victory cemented her statistical and philosophical claim to the no. 1 ranking she has held since late February. It was Halep’s third title of the season—tied for third most on tour—and she has accrued more points (5,285) and prize money ($5,345,777) than anyone in her circuit so far this year. By nearly every metric, 2018 has been the year of Simona Halep.
Now she’ll be tasked with taking her mid-career renaissance to grass at Wimbledon. Entering Halep’s first-round match Tuesday, OddsShark lists her as having the fourth-best odds to win the tournament, trailing stalwarts Petra Kvitova, Serena Williams, and Garbine Muguruza. History tells us it will be difficult for Halep to repeat her Roland Garros title run. The field is as wide-open as it’s ever been: The only woman not named Williams to win back-to-back singles slams this century was a post-comeback Kim Clijsters more than seven years ago. And Halep has advanced to the quarterfinals in her last two Wimbledon appearances but has never reached the semis.
Halep’s former tormentors will be waiting. Her side of the draw, should she escape it, could feature matchups with Konta, Ostapenko, Maria Sharapova (who bested Halep in three sets in the 2014 French Open final), or the favorite, Kvitova. “The pressure is off—the dream came true,” Halep said, beaming, in a press conference over the weekend. The question now is whether that will unlock a looser, more relaxed Halep or inspire complacency in a player who has made a living as an underdog.
“I give her credit, with all the sorts of kicks in the stomach she’s had, to be able to keep coming out and keep putting herself in positions and keep winning,” Cahill said in an interview just after Halep first reached no. 1 last year. “It shows she has a remarkable strength inside.”
For a player as gifted as Halep, that fortitude—sharpened and honed through years of tribulation—might be her greatest advantage.
“I’ve always said that winning a Grand Slam title is what is most important,” Halep told The Independent last October. “If you get to no. 1 people say: ‘But you didn’t win a Grand Slam.’ … If you want to finish your career really happy with what you did, you have to win both.”
And as of that balmy mid-June afternoon in Paris, she has both. Wimbledon will be a fresh test for Halep, and it likely won’t be forgiving; one challenge begets another, and the ghosts of collapses past are awaiting her in London. But for now, a player who was once implored by her coach to change is focused on keeping some things constant.
“Of course inside of myself it’s a change because I’m really happy that I was able to break that barrier,” Halep said. “But life is the same. Everybody’s the same. I am the same.”