Simona Halep: Tracing her journey to the top of the world
By reaching the finals of the China Open (a match she eventually lost), Simona Halep became WTA’s 25th World number one since they started producing rankings in November 1976. Considering only 25 ladies have ascended the throne in almost 41 years, this is quite an achievement for the Romanian.
Born in Constanta, Hungary in 1991 to a sporting family (her father was a professional footballer), Halep started playing tennis at the age of six. She moved to Bucharest at 16 to further her career, as the city had better facilities and opportunities. She started competing in local tournaments and eventually graduated to the Junior Tour, winning the Junior French Open in 2008, defeating compatriot Elena Bogdan.
Halep’s first taste of the Senior circuit came in 2010 at the French Open, where she lost to eventual finalist Samantha Stosur in the second round. She won her first 6 WTA titles in the same calendar year (2013), a feat that was last achieved by Steffi Graf in 1986 when she won her first 7 that year. Halep first broke into the world's top 50 at the end of 2012, reached the top 20 in August 2013, broke into the top 10 in January 2014, and has been there ever since. She has been a quarterfinalist twice at the Australian Open (2014, 2015).
She has reached the semifinals at the All England Championships at Wimbledon (2014) and at the US Open at Flushing Meadows (2015). However, it is at the French Open where she has had the most success. She reached the finals in 2014, losing to Maria Sharapova (against whom she had not won until the quarterfinals of the 2017 China Open) and again in 2017 where she, quite surprisingly, lost to the first-time finalist Jelena Ostapenko.
Halep has self-described her playing style as being "an aggressive baseliner", much like her idol and former world number one Justine Henin-Hardenne. She has a great array of strokes and does not play to a pattern. Having the uncanny ability to hit winners from defensive positions, she is as good with crosscourt shots as she is with down-the-line ones.
Her sense of anticipation enables her to reach the ball early and return effectively. For someone who is 5’6, she has a decent serve and uses it effectively. A very fit body gives her the ability to cover the entire court and she rarely fails to return a shot. She possesses the ability to disrupt the opponent’s rhythm and momentum by finding the lines regularly.
However, it is the mental side of things that has resulted in Grand Slams eluding her. She lost the 2017 French Open final to Ostapenko when she led by a set and 3-0, and lost the final of the 2017 Cincinnati Masters to Garbine Muguruza. Had she won these matches, she would have been ranked world number one much earlier in the year.
She also lost to Johanna Konta in the quarterfinals of the 2017 Miami Open despite serving for the match in the second set. At Wimbledon, she again allowed Konta to mount a comeback after being one set up. She has also lost in the first round at the 2017 Australian Open and twice at the US Open (2016 and 2017).
At 27, Halep is reaching her peak years. Ascending to world number one in the rankings should be a shot in the arm for a player who promises so much but delivers so little. Let’s hope that she overcomes her faults and aces the rest of her career! I’ll be watching!