When Simona Halep was 14 years old, she decided she wanted to become one of the best tennis players in the world.
Nearly 12 years later, she ascended to the top spot of the rankings for the first time, becoming the first woman from Romania to occupy that position.
Along the way, Halep had to learn how to handle the enormous level of attention she was getting back home, as she single-handedly revived the sport in Romania, decades after the likes of her compatriots Ilie Nastase and Virginia Ruzici enjoyed their tennis success.
Every word she says and each move she makes is front page news at home, and it took her a while before she got accustomed to the media frenzy that followed her everywhere.
“2014 was the worst, then one more year, then that was it. Now I’m feeling good,” Halep told reporters in Dubai on Wednesday, following her 6-3, 7-5 win over Lesia Tsurenko in the third round.
Halep has never dropped out of the top-10 since she entered that ranking bracket in January 2014. She has spent the last 265 consecutive weeks in the top-10, which is currently the longest active streak on tour.
Her strength and consistency is the envy of many players on the circuit, and Halep says she developed both thanks to the pressure she had to deal with from Romanians throughout the years. She is a rockstar back home and has finally learned to embrace it.
“Nobody has or had what I had in Romania. Trust me that I am strong, [because] I could resist that thing,” she says with a smile.
“But when I’m going to the tournaments, even if I’m No. 1, No. 5, I treat the same. You can lose any time. You can win any match. I’m going with that mentality. If I lose, let’s say, an easy match, even if at this level you don’t have easy matches, I don’t make a drama. I want to shake it off fast, then start the new day tomorrow.”
Halep, who made the Doha final last week and is contesting the quarters in Dubai on Thursday, was speaking a day after Naomi Osaka teared up in front of reporters in the Emirates, as she admitted the intense media and public reaction to her coaching split with Sascha Bajin has been difficult to navigate.
Osaka lost her first match as world No. 1 when she fell to Kristina Mladenovic in Dubai on Tuesday and said the off-court drama affected her on-court. It was also Osaka’s first match since winning a second consecutive Grand Slam title at the Australian Open last month, to go with her maiden success at the US Open last September.
“I think it’s different to each player. I cannot say what she feels. It’s normal. She didn’t play since Melbourne. She won that title, very big title. It’s normal to have a little bit of letdown maybe. But she will come back stronger. If she lost one match, doesn’t mean that she lost everything. She has to relax,” Halep said of the 21-year-old Osaka.
Halep, who spent a total number of 64 weeks at No. 1 before conceding the spot to Osaka in January, said it’s difficult to compare her rise to that of the young Japanese, whose ascension from being a top-10 debutante to being a reigning world No. 1 took just 20 weeks – the fastest ever in WTA history.
“I didn’t feel very weird when I went to No. 1 seed. I didn’t have this pressure. Also I had been there for four years before at No. 2, No. 3. She’s different because she came last year from around 70, if I remember well. Maybe it’s different. I was okay. I didn’t have pressure of being No. 1,” explained Halep.
Meanwhile, two-time defending champion Elina Svitolina recorded an 11th consecutive match-win in Dubai thanks to a smooth 6-1, 6-2 triumph over Garbine Muguruza on Wednesday. The Ukrainian No. 6 seed next faces Carla Suarez Navarro in the quarter-finals.
* Stats via WTA Insider
Ask Hsieh Su-Wei to describe her own game and she gives you a simple answer.
“Su-Wei style: anything can happen on court,” she says with a smile.
The 33-year-old from Taipei has her unique brand of tennis and can pull off inconceivable shots with her cunning slices and lobs. But she also has the ability to hit the ball hard, and even a power-hitter like Naomi Osaka told reporters after their three-set thriller at the Australian Open that she felt Hsieh struck the ball harder than most of her opponents that tournament.
“Against Naomi, you know she’s very strong, so I was thinking, ‘Okay, when I go on the court, I’m going to smash her as hard as I can’, and I did, but finally I lost the match, but it’s okay, at least I know that my plan is working,” Hsieh tells Sport360 with a laugh.
Hsieh started the year making the semis in Auckland, before reaching the Australian Open third round and now the quarters in Dubai, after taking out 10th-seeded Anastasija Sevastova, Aliaksandra Sasnovich and fifth-seeded Angelique Kerber.
She is on the brink of matching her career-high ranking of 23, which she hit back in 2013, and won her first WTA title in six years last September in Hiroshima. Expected to rise to at least 28 in the rankings next week, Hsieh isn’t surprised she is enjoying some of her best tennis at age 33.
“I try to keep my mid like I’m 18 years old. So I don’t worry about my age, I just want to keep healthy and keep enjoying tennis, even when I lose, it’s okay, just keep positive and keep training hard,” she says, before giving two thumbs up to the camera.
Hsieh’s interviews are just as entertaining as her tennis and if you want to see her light up, just get her to talk about food.
When asked what she’s most proud of so far this week in the Emirates, she said: “I ate ilak fish. You know it? It’s a huge fish. I found it two years ago, I found this dish in a shop. And then this year I said, ‘Okay, today is a day off, I want to go find this fish again’. And I went and it was amazing, I really enjoyed it. I try to discover more food here. I really love it. I hope I keep doing better so I can stay longer and enjoy more food.”
That’s certainly one effective way to stay motivated on the court.
Hsieh has been spending more time in France where she lives with her French boyfriend. Of course the big highlight for her there is the decadent French cuisine.
— Simona Halep (@Simona_Halep) February 19, 2019
Elsewhere in the press centre, former world No. 1 Simona Halep discussed what it’s like having so many fans chanting her name from the stands and supporting her wherever she goes.
“I hear everything, every word,” said Halep when asked if she blocks the cheers from the crowd to stay focused. Someone said is going to lose the plane tonight and I have to finish faster. I don’t know if it’s positive for me during the match, but I took it. I lost the game, but then I won the match,” she said with a laugh. “Yeah, I hear everything.”
Last year’s finalist Daria Kasatkina said she is going through a “crisis” after she made a second round exit from the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
Kasatkina, a runner-up to Elina Svitolina in the Emirates last season, came to Dubai this week having not won a tour match in four attempts this year.
The 21-year-old enjoyed a breakthrough 2018, which saw her win her home tournament in Moscow, reach the finals at Indian Wells and Dubai, and make the quarters of the French Open and Wimbledon. She cracked the top-10 for the first time at the end of the year and looked on course for another big breakthrough in 2019.
But the new season did not start as well as Kasatkina would have hoped, with her latest disappointment coming in Dubai, where she squandered a lead in the third set to lose 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 to Sonya Kenin in the second round on Tuesday.
While Kasatkina had a slow start to last season as well, she was able to turn things around early February, when she reached the semi-finals in St. Petersburg before making the final in Dubai. This year, the young Russian’s struggles are taking a bit longer to overcome and Kasatkina admits the pressure that has come with her rise from last year has been tricky to handle.
“The start of the season completely sucks. Even worse than last year. But I think most players go through these periods, through these crises, so I think I just have to push myself and see this situation from the positive side,” a dejected Kasatkina told Sport360 in Dubai.
“It’s not about tennis, it’s more mental. Maybe I’m just a little bit tired from the last season, because it’s very tough, very stressful for me so I think I’m a little bit tired from the mental part.”
Fans may have noticed that Kasatkina was not accompanied by her coach Philippe Dehaes in Dubai but she assures they are still working together and that he simply had a week off to spend time with his family, before they reunite in Indian Wells.
Kasatkina is trying to draw on her success from last year to get through this challenging period.
“Of course I’m thinking about it. A few days I went on the empty centre court in the tribunes, trying to imagine the matches I played there last year,” she revealed.
“This is the kind of motivation, when you are down. Reminding yourself about the best matches of your career, this helps a lot.”
Asked to recall other times in her tennis journey where she experienced a downturn and managed to flip it around, Kasatkina added: “It was different, it was easier, it was not that much pressure, not that much stress situations. You’re growing up, you’re getting more mature. You just have to go through it, through this period. For everybody it’s different, I just have to find my way to correct this situation.”