Simona Halep is hoping her tough journey to a first Grand Slam title, that culminated with her lifting a historic Roland Garros trophy on Saturday can inspire the younger generation in Romania.
After becoming Romania’s first-ever female world No. 1 end of last season, Halep became just the second woman from her country – behind 1978 Roland Garros champion Virginia Ruzici – to win a Grand Slam title.
After falling short in three major finals, Halep finally got her victory on her beloved Parisian clay with a three-set win over 10th-seeded Sloane Stephens.
“To play in 12 months three Grand Slam finals, for me means a lot,” said the 26-year-old Halep.
“And the fact that I didn’t give up after the one last year here [in which she lost in three sets to Jelena Ostapenko] means that I’m strong inside and I do this just because I love this sport. I love to be competitive on court.
“And I have learned in those 12 months that if you don’t give up you’re able to do anything. So I hope the kids are taking this and the Romanians will believe more in themselves.”
Halep was already a superstar in Romania, but her status will no doubt soar after her latest achievement.
Ruzici, who used to be Halep’s manager and continues to be close to her, was elated after her protégé’s triumph on Saturday.
“In Romania, the achievement is enormous. We haven’t had such a champion in so many years – in tennis, anyway, since Ilie Nastase. And in other sports, since the gymnasts. Nadia Comaneci and the other gymnasts who have had Olympic medals,” said Ruzici.
While she admits she was “really worried” when Halep trailed Stephens by a set and a break in the final, Ruzici assures, “We believed, because we know she’s such a fighter, and she turns things around”.
It’s been four years since Halep reached her first Slam final, losing in three sets to Maria Sharapova in Paris. It took her another three years to get a second opportunity, but it ended in heartbreak against an unseeded Ostapenko.
At the Australian Open last January, a depleted Halep fell to Caroline Wozniacki in a gruelling three-set final.
Halep could have been forgiven if she had decided to give up on her Grand Slam dream throughout this painful process. But she insists she always kept the belief.
“I said that if I was in that position three times, I was close to win, it’s going to happen, I just have to keep working hard and not giving up,” she said.
Words can’t describe how happy the last 24 hours have been for me. I’ve read so many messages & social media posts that’ve brought tears to my eyes that I can’t thank you enough. Sorry for a few bumps along the way 🤷♀️🙄 but we finally got there!☺️💪 Lots of love, Simo ❤️ pic.twitter.com/Rzvs6fzN1Y
— Simona Halep (@Simona_Halep) June 10, 2018
Many top players choose to focus too much on the Slams, to make sure they peak there at the right time, and in doing that, their results at regular tour events can suffer.
Despite her mostly consistent performances at the majors – she has made the quarter-finals or better at 11 of her last 18 Slams and seven of her last 11 – Halep has also been incredibly reliable throughout the year; which is why she is ranked No. 1 in the world.
“I was looking and I was trying to learn something from other players who are really focused on the Grand Slams. I couldn’t do that in the past. For me every tournament is important and I feel that if I don’t treat every tournament with 100 per cent focus I will not be ready for the Grand Slams,” explains Halep.
“It’s my way of thinking, my way to play this sport and I think it helped me to get the experience from all the tournaments to see that I’m able to win the mandatory tournaments and for sure if I’m able to beat these players, who are the same in the Grand Slams, I will one day win a Grand Slam.”
Halep, who confessed on Saturday that she feels drained, will take two weeks off before she shifts her focus to the grass season.
There was a look of relief on her face when she was on court the moment she won the match, but she doesn’t feel like a weight has been lifted off her shoulder.
“I feel the same,” she said when asked if she felt lighter. “I feel emotional, I feel tired, I feel like I don’t have energy anymore, but it’s a good tired. So I will take it, I will embrace it and I will enjoy it.”
While she laughed when someone brought up Wimbledon so soon after her victory, Halep is hoping to keep her momentum going at her next events in Eastbourne and the All England Club.
“My holiday looks boring, just chilling, sleeping and eating,” she says.
“Now I don’t know how it’s going to be. But for sure I will be ready in my head to take another step in my career. Maybe I’ll change a little bit the vision of the pressure and all the things. I don’t know how it’s going to be but for the moment I’ll be off for a few days and I’ll try to get ready, recover and go to play on grass.”
Her coach Darren Cahill isn’t worried about getting Halep back on the court for the grass.
“It’s okay, we’re ready. She loves the game, no question that we’ll give her time off, go back enjoy herself in Bucharest. Good couple of weeks, and then the plan is to play Eastbourne to get a couple of matches, maybe more, go all the way there and get her game ready for Wimbledon and I would say she’ll be full of confidence going into the grass and she’ll give it her best shot,” said the Aussie.
*Reem Abulleil sat down with WTA Insider’s Courtney Nguyen and New York Times contributor Ben Rothenberg to dissect Simona Halep’s journey to a maiden Grand Slam title in this five-part video series. Scroll down for parts 2-5.*
Simona Halep’s journey to a maiden Grand Slam title is one that will be discussed probably for many years to come.
After losing her first three major finals, including a heartbreaker to an unseeded Jelena Ostapenko in last year’s French Open where she led by a set and 3-0 before succumbing to the Latvian power player, Halep returned to the scene of her deepest disappointment and rewrote her history in Paris.
A battling three-set win over Sloane Stephens in the Roland Garros final on Saturday saw the world No. 1 finally clinch a first Slam trophy, 10 years after she won the junior title here, and 40 years after Romanian Virginia Ruzici claimed her French Open crown. Ruzici and Halep are the only Romanian women to ever win a Grand Slam title.
I saw down with WTA Insider‘s Courtney Nguyen, and New York Times contributor Ben Rothenberg, to dissect Halep’s Roland Garros success.
In the video above, we discuss Halep’s comeback from 3-6, 0-2 down against Stephens on Saturday, and how she was able to pull it off. Nguyen poses the important question: Did Halep banish her demons from last year’s painful final, or did she actually embrace them?
Rothenberg then points out that Halep is the first Slam-less world No. 1 to claim a first major while holding the top spot. Unlike others in the past, Halep used her ascension to the top of the rankings as a springboard rather than getting weighed down by the fact she was at the summit but with no Slams on her resume. Nguyen also tells us about the great influence of her coach Darren Cahill, who seems to have finally cracked the Simona code.
The outpouring of congratulatory messages we’ve seen on social media from Halep’s peers, pundits and even ATP players and coaches has been undeniable. Nguyen tells us why the 26-year-old Romanian is so well-respected.
Stephens missed a chance of winning a second title in her last three Slams but can walk away with many positives, especially with a runner-up showing on clay, which is a surface she likes, but isn’t necessarily her best. The new world No. 4 went on an eight-match losing streak after winning her first major at the US Open last September. Will she find more consistency after her latest strong outing in Paris?
Finally, we deliberate how Halep will react after checking the biggest item on her bucket list. Will Wimbledon come too soon for her, or will she try and keep her momentum going?
You can tell how huge Simona Halep’s victory at the French Open means not from her own response to it but from the emotional reaction of the public, her fellow players, and people around her.
The ‘SI-MO-NA’ chants took over Roland Garros on Saturday, and even somehow made their way into her press conference. Twitter exploded with congratulatory messages from her peers – but they weren’t your standard mandatory cordial props.
“CONGRATULATIONS, Simona – is what I‘m trying to say and thank you for teaching us all,” said Andrea Petkovic, who lost to Halep in the third round here in Paris last week.
“For all the haters who said she‘ll never win a Slam because she‘s mentally weak, go choke on that. Everyone has their own timing and supposed failures are often just stepping stones in an individual‘s life,” continued the German.
Russia’s Elena Vesnina posted: “Simonaa! You deserve this title more than anyone @rolandgarros. Huge congratulations!”
Two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova messaged Halep after the Romanian lost last year’s French Open final to Jelena Ostapenko. She consoled her and told her, “it’s coming”.
The Czech texted her against after he win on Saturday and congratulated her.
Daria Gavrilova simply posted a tweet with Halep’s name and a crying face emoji, followed by applause.
People have been emotionally invested in Halep’s journey over the past 12 months and the 26-year-old made sure her tale has come full circle.
From blowing a set and a break lead against an unseeded Ostapenko in the Paris final last year, to coming back from a set and a break down against Sloane Stephens on the very same court on Saturday… The fact that she gets to walk away with the bigger trophy this time is what can be described as a perfectly-scripted ended to this one-year chapter of her career.
It’s how a sports movie would unfold except this isn’t cheesy fiction; this is an incredibly inspiring reality.
People felt her heartbreak after Roland Garros last year, then saw her heart on full display during her physically-gruelling run to the Australian Open final last January. She was 0-3 in Slam finals and almost everyone’s sentimental favourite.
When Halep stood on the podium on centre court hugging her trophy, she glanced at Stephens, who motioned to her to lift it high up in celebration.
Aww Sloane teaching Simona how to hold a Slam trophy ❤️ pic.twitter.com/HsNOMICtJ8
— Dr. Sholz (@SholzTalks10s) June 9, 2018
“Show the world your trophy. You have been waiting for this. So you better put it up in the air and show them what you got today,” a classy Stephens later said in her press conference of that moment.
“I think she’s had a tough journey. I think winning here is very special for her and I’m glad she finally got her first slam. It’s a beautiful thing, very special. No matter how hard the adversity that you go through, there is always light at the end of the tunnel, and I’m glad she finally got her light,” added the US Open champion.
Halep’s team have witnessed firsthand what she has gone through to finally become a Grand Slam winner. Virginia Ruzici, who was the only Romanian woman to win a major before Halep matched her achievement, has been in Halep’s corner for many years as a manager and confidante.
It’s been exactly 40 years since Ruzici lifted the French Open trophy. She was in the stands watching Halep on Saturday.
“To me, it tells her that she did it because she’s big. She’s a big champion. She’s huge,” said Ruzici after Halep’s win.
“I like her modesty. She’s down to earth. She treats people all equal. These are important qualities, and she’s very honest. Also with her team and her friends, she’s really fantastic.”
Halep’s honesty, be it on the court or off it, is what captured people’s attention. In success and failure, she showed how she felt and articulated her most complex feelings. Her lowest moments struck a chord with so many people out there.
— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) June 9, 2018
“I know it’s just a tennis match, but it’s not really just a tennis match, because this is what we sweat blood and tears and this is what it’s all about for us,” her coach Darren Cahill said.
In her champion’s press conference, Halep told us how difficult it’s been sitting in that chair every tournament having to talk about whether she would ever become a Grand Slam winner.
“Honestly, that’s the toughest thing,” she confessed.
She will now be sitting in that chair as a world No. 1 and Grand Slam champion. It’s hard to think of anyone at this moment who deserves it more.
Congratulations to @Simona_Halep and her team! Great job 👍🏻
— victoria azarenka (@vika7) June 9, 2018
— Thomas Johansson (@tompatennis) June 9, 2018
— Carla Suarez Navarro (@CarlaSuarezNava) June 9, 2018
— Jule Goerges✌️🇩🇪 (@juliagoerges) June 9, 2018
— Alize Cornet (@alizecornet) June 9, 2018
— Kristina Mladenovic (@KikiMladenovic) June 9, 2018
Very very happy for @Simona_Halep. So well deserved. More to come….
— Ivan Ljubicic (@theljubicic) June 9, 2018
— Kevin Anderson (@KAndersonATP) June 9, 2018
Congrats Simona 🙏 Well deserved, great job! 🖐
— Karolina Pliskova (@KaPliskova) June 9, 2018
Simonaaaaa! You did it. So happy for you. Enjoy every second. You deserve this moment so much 🎉❤️ #RG18
— Petra Kvitova (@Petra_Kvitova) June 9, 2018