It hasn’t been an easy road to becoming a Grand Slam champion for Simona Halep. In fairness, to win one of those most coveted of trophies is never an easy proposition. The weight of expectation must grow heavy for all, save for those who manage astonishing teenaged wins, such as Monica Seles, Martina Hingis, Boris Becker and Mats Wilander. And they face no shortage of challenges of their own. But Halep seemed to be facing a particularly gruelling route to success.
It’s not perhaps immediately clear why. There are players who have had to wait longer. Andy Murray and his erstwhile coach Ivan Lendl both lost their first four Slam finals before getting over the line. Many players who reach a Major final and lose never have the opportunity to win another. But it was perhaps the closeness of the matches she lost and the intensity with which she wanted it that set Halep apart. That, and her #1 ranking.
A unique challenge
In the men’s game only Ivan Lendl, who went on to win eight, and Marcelo Rios, who never won one, have reached the top of the rankings without winning a Slam. But a fair few more women have found themselves in the predicament if it can be called that. Two of the most notable and recent have been Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep, who both reached the pinnacle of the sport without lifting one of its four most important titles.
For Wozniacki, who first reached the top in 2010 and finished the year ranked there in both 2010 and 2011, it led to difficult questions about whether she was good enough to win a Slam, questions that probably would not have been asked of most players just entering their twenties. But to be at the very top of any sport is to invite intense media pressure and the easy angle provided by the Slamless Dane proved too inviting to ignore.
One suspects that it may have led to the downturn of form that saw Wozniacki only return to the #1 ranking earlier this year, exactly six years to the day after she had last relinquished it in 2012. That she did so after claiming the Australian Open title seemed fitting. But that must have been a cold comfort to the woman she defeated to do so, Simona Halep, for whom it was a third loss in a Major final. That Halep had finished the preceding year as world #1 for the first time surely made it even harder to take.
Indeed, the difficult to shake tag of ‘choker’ had begun to be applied to Halep too. Her situation was not helped by having lost the French Open final in 2017 to Jelena Ostapenko, despite having been a break up in both the second and third sets after winning the first. But the Romanian seemed to have learned from her difficult losses, and after renewing her partnership with Darren Cahill there seemed to be real hope that 2018 could be her year in Paris.
The clouds lifted
She made it to the final impressively. In fact, she dropped only one set, to the in-form Angelique Kerber, in doing so. But Sloane Stephens, her opponent in the title match, had no intention of making it easy for her. The American came out firing and at one point led by a set and a break. But adversity, and the vocal support of the crowd, seemed to fire Halep on, and she played some of the best tennis of her career to turn the match around and win 3-6 6-4 6-1.
If her emotions got the better of her in the moment of victory, she had every right to succumb to them. An embrace with Cahill, who has invested so much in her development, was a particularly poignant moment. But the entire victory seemed to have about it an air of justice finally being done for one of the sport’s biggest talents. That may go some way to explain the outpouring of goodwill Halep received in the aftermath of her triumph, particularly from many of her colleagues on the Tour.
At last, Halep will no longer have to hear doubts about her bottle or her worthiness to hold the #1 ranking, which she rubberstamped with victory in Paris. With attention soon to move to Wimbledon, a tournament Halep has never found particular success at, more glory may not immediately come. Indeed, it would be no surprise to see a slight let down in her form, which may well see other champions take her place in the spotlight.
But for now, in the moment of calm that follows a Major, Halep deserves all the credit that she’s received. And then some.
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