Emotional Simona Halep called it the best day of her life as she surged to number one in the world for the first time after reaching the China Open final on Saturday.
The Romanian, who said her next goal was to win a maiden Grand Slam, defeated Latvia’s Jelena Ostapenko 6-2, 6-4 in their semi-final.
Her ousting of Spaniard Garbine Muguruza at the top of the women’s game will be officially confirmed on Monday when the latest rankings are released.
The 26-year-old Halep is the fifth woman to hold top spot this year, but the first Romanian in the history of the WTA.
She smiled broadly, then cried and was presented with a flower arrangement in the figure “1” — which she hugged tightly — to celebrate the landmark moment.
“My dream is true now, in that moment you cannot believe 100 percent that it’s happening, so I was in tears a little bit,” she said.
“Maybe first time on court (to cry) nice tears… It’s the best moment in my life and I want just to keep it.
“Now tomorrow already I have just to restart everything, to start again to play the same and to work harder.
“And I have a few more dreams in my career.”
We have a NEW World No.1…
— WTA (@WTA) October 7, 2017
Asked by AFP what those were, she smiled: “I tell you one, only one: to win a Grand Slam, which you know.”
Halep saw off former number one Maria Sharapova earlier this week in Beijing and Saturday’s defeat of Ostapenko had a whiff of revenge – the 20-year-old won their duel in the French Open final earlier this year.
Halep will face either Caroline Garcia of France or Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic in Sunday’s China Open final.
She was always in control against the world number eight Ostapenko and put herself on the way to victory when she broke the talented Latvian in the first game of the first set.
Halep’s ascension to the top brings Muguruza’s four-week reign as number one to an end, while the others who held the honour in 2017 are Angelique Kerber, Serena Williams and Karolina Pliskova.
The outstanding Williams is temporarily out of tennis after having her first child.
In the lead-up to Beijing, Halep said she was unconcerned about becoming world number one, but admitted with a grin: “Of course I wanted it.
“When I was five points away I felt that I want it more and more.”
The Romanian lost a heart-breaker to Sharapova in the US Open first round just five weeks ago, and their previous showdowns included a three-set defeat to the Russian in the 2014 Roland Garros final.
At the China Open on Wednesday, Halep secured the win in emphatic fashion, needing just 72 minutes to overcome the five-time Grand Slam champion and roll into the quarter-finals.
“It was a great match. I think I played my best tennis against her. I served pretty well and the work that I did after US Open, now I could see on court, and I’m really happy I could do this. It’s my first victory against her and I just want to enjoy the moment,” Halep told WTA Insider.
“Actually many times I played against her I felt that I can win the match, I can beat her, but it didn’t happen. Today I just said that it’s another match, I have just to give everything I have, to stay focused, calm and positive, which I did great and it helped me a lot.”
Sharapova had fought through two three-setters prior to her match against Halep, spending a total of five hours and 17 minutes on court in her opening two rounds versus Anastasija Sevastova (who beat Sharapova at the US Open), and Ekaterina Makarova.
The ex-world No. 1, who is still working her way back up the rankings following her 15-month doping ban, admits she lacked sharpness against Halep.
“Look, first of all, I think she played an incredible match, probably the best she’s played against me in all of our previous meetings. And I wasn’t as sharp. I wasn’t seeing the ball as well. I wasn’t moving up and down as well as I have been against her,” said the 30-year-old Sharapova.
“She was hitting the ball consistently, not making a lot of unforced errors, her service percentage was quite high. She did all the right things.”
— WTA (@WTA) October 4, 2017
Currently ranked 104 in the world (she’s projected to rise to around 86 next week), Sharapova will next head to Tianjin, where, like in Bejiing, she will be playing as a wildcard.
During her time away from the sport, Sharapova penned her memoir ‘Unstoppable: My Life So Far’, in which she discussed her journey as a youngster from Sochi to Florida with her father, her rivalry with Serena Williams, and her feelings about tennis.
She was asked in Beijing to elaborate on some of her comments in the book, regarding how some players don’t necessarily love the sport.
“I think in order to be a tennis player, you have to be doing somewhat of a good job. Like, no one that is here is not doing a good job. The level is too high. It’s too physical, too mental. You just won’t make it. Hard work is not good enough anymore. Maybe it was I don’t know how many years ago, but that’s just not a factor anymore,” explained Sharapova.
“The reason I say that is, I mean, there’s some incredible moments, very high moments, and there are very low moments. There have been times where I get off the court and you think, I don’t wish this on my future child.
“The feeling is so tough and disappointing. You work so much, you dedicate so much of your time, you have so many people around you, and sometimes it doesn’t work according to plan, so you start asking questions.
“But then once you work, you keep going, keep fighting through it, the rewards are very incredible and special. They have nothing to do with finance, they have nothing to do with trophies, it’s really internal. I think sport gives people something that nothing really else can replicate. I think that’s what makes it so great.”
World number one Garbine Muguruza retired ill with a virus in the first round of the China Open on Monday and US Open winner Sloane Stephens went out in a shock defeat.
Spain’s Muguruza suggested in the build-up that she was not fully fit after a leg injury and she lost the first set 6-1 to unseeded Barbora Strycova of the Czech Republic.
Muguruza, 23, the reigning Wimbledon champion, called a medical timeout at 2-0 down in the second set and then called it quits after having her pulse taken on the side of the court.
Muguruza said afterwards she had been too unwell even to practise for her opener but had been determined to play, having lost in the quarter-finals last week in Wuhan.
“Since I’m in Beijing, I didn’t play at all. I don’t know, I got a virus in Wuhan,” she said.
“I want to feel like giving the last chance, going on the court, just hit a few balls, see how I’m going to feel, try to turn things around.
“I don’t want to retire before the tournament starts for me.”
Muguruza, yet to win a tournament since reaching the top ranking in mid-September, added: “It’s good that I could play on Monday, I had more days to rest.
“But in fact, I couldn’t perform today.”
— WTA (@WTA) October 2, 2017
Stephens meanwhile tumbled out in the first round for the second week running, this time at the hands of qualifier Christina McHale.
The 15th seed Stephens, wearing all pink, saw her match delayed by rain falling on Beijing’s outdoor hardcourts.
When it finally got started she failed to fire, going out to her fellow American with a whimper, 6-3, 6-0 in just 62 minutes.
The loss extends Stephens’ poor run after sealing her first Grand Slam last month.
Last week the 24-year-old similarly fell at the first hurdle, losing to China’s Wang Qiang in the opening round of the Wuhan Open.
Stephens, ranked 17 in the world to McHale’s 79, refused to make any excuses during a post-match press conference lasting less than 90 seconds.
“Tough day, not really much to say,” she said.
“Obviously not a great match so just forget about it and move on, try to have a better level for the next tournament (Hong Kong).”
Asked if the delayed start for rain disrupted her, she said: “Yes, but it affects both players, so… I mean, she obviously just handled it a little bit better.”
— WTA (@WTA) October 2, 2017