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