Ooh! Aah! Simona!

 - Pierre-Philippe Berson

Simona Halep, into round three, talks with "Roland" magazine.

Simona Halep© Julien Crosnier / FFT

Why does she like Paris? Why did she feel “relieved” when she won the French Open in 2018? Why wasn’t she a tennis fan when she was younger?

Simona Halep, the defending champion who beat Magda Linette in three sets on Thursday evening to reach the last 32, answers these questions… and more.

Roland: Is it special for you to play in the French Open every year?
Simona Halep: This tournament is quite different for me of course. I really like the clay in Paris, it is harder and drier than anywhere else. The game is faster, the ball bounces better, it suits my style. I like it today but when I played here for the first time as a junior in 2007, I was completely lost. I was eliminated in the first round. The clay was nothing like the one I used to play on in Romania. In my country, it is heavier, a bit like the one in Rome and Madrid. But I got used to it and my game improved. I even won the Roland-Garros Junior Championship the year after, in 2008. Roland-Garros is special for me, I love its cosy atmosphere. 

What do you mean by cosy?
Well, it is a smaller tournament, it’s lovely. It has a human size and feels like a family. You don’t feel oppressed there, unlike the US Open or the Australian Open; these two tournaments are massive; with huge stands where you have to walk for hours to get from one court to another. In Paris, it is smaller, more welcoming and friendly.

You love Paris, like so many people. But as far as you are concerned, you seem to be really passionate about this city.
To be honest, my life is about hotels and tennis courts when I play at Roland-Garros. Nothing else. I don’t have time for myself, not even for a walk in the city. I can hardly go out for a stroll. This is why I go to Paris on holiday when I don’t play. I love the architecture here. The Champs-Élysées is the perfect avenue to wander around and have an ice cream. And for shopping of course. I love this place! Place Vendôme, you know… (she sighs) It is beautiful! So many positive vibes, so much beauty.

What about the people here? Their reputation is not good, they are known for not being friendly to tourists and for their poor English…
I’ve always been well greeted, in the shops and all. I feel good with the French people, we do get along. Well, I can’t understand them… I can only catch a few similarities with Romanian as they are both Latin languages. But it would be the same for you: if you went to Romania and people spoke Romanian, you would not understand a thing.

Simona Halep© Philippe Montigny / FFT

Did you study French at school?
Honestly, I was not good at foreign languages. French was my second language after Italian. I must have learnt French for four or five years, something like that. But in Romania, the language classes are not really intensive, it is just two or three hours per week. I realize that I don’t really know the French people either. I mean, I know a lot of people who live here, but who are not French, like my agent Virginia Ruzici, or people who are half French, half something else…

You love fashion as well. Last year, you even designed your own dress for the Australian Open as you had no sponsor. Does this love for fashion make you love Paris even more?
Of course it does! My favourite brands are designer houses: Dior, Chanel, Sonia Rykiel, Yves Saint-Laurent. I like watching fashion shows, visiting shops and checking out what’s out there. I wear some of their clothes but only the most classic and simple ones. Actually, fashion is getting a bit too flashy for me, I can hardly wear what the designers create nowadays… I was born to wear jeans, hoodies and sneakers. (She laughs)

Roland-Garros 2019 - tirage au sort - Simona Halep@ Julien Crosnier / FFT

What do you think about the way we dress in France?
You guys are so classy. You don’t mess with fashion in France. In Paris, you can see that people really thought about what they would wear for the day. They look so pretty, they want to look nice any time they go out. Sometimes it’s too much though: they look like they are going to a wedding.

Where does your love for France come from?
I have been feeling a real connection with this country from a very young age, starting with my first years as a junior. It is close to my country: France is just a three-hour flight away from Romania, so it feels like home. There is a Latin culture here, some kind of friendliness and I like that. When I travel for tennis, I go to great places, I stay in wonderful hotels, I come across different cultures. But Paris is different, you know… For me it is the coolest place on Earth.

Does playing in Latin countries, where you feel good, have an influence on the way you play?
Totally! I won my first tournament in Bonfiglio, Italy (2008). I love Latin atmospheres and I feel better when I play in Europe. I feel calm, more relaxed. It feels like home; my friends come to see me play and it feels good to have them in the stands.

As the title holder, do you feel more pressured this year or are you more relaxed?
I feel way better! It was my lifetime dream to win the French Open and I was relieved when I won it. Of course, I have a lot of points to earn, a title to defend but I am way more relaxed this year than I was before. I am not saying I don’t care, I know it is going to be hard. I can’t wait, I want to get back to this routine that I love. I think the finals I lost in 2014 and 2017 gave me the confidence and experience I needed. I saw I had what it takes to win. In 2017, I was up 3-1 in the third set, and yet I lost. Last year, I was one set down but I fought and I won.

Are you superstitious?
Yes I am! There are so many things I do… but I won’t tell. I keep them for myself… by superstition!

For a long time, the relationship between you and Roland-Garros was complicated. The love was clearly shared but it took a moment before you two matched. Do you agree?
I do! Of course, it was tough to lose twice in the final. I was so disappointed. But it has always been a pleasure for me to come back here. It had no impact on our relationship. (laughter)

Simona Halep media day© Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

As a teenager, what did you think of the French Open?
I did not watch it much on TV. I discovered the tournament in 2007 and I had no opinion whatsoever. I knew it was a Grand Slam tournament played on clay in Paris and that’s about it! Nothing else. I knew just what I had to know. (laughter) To be honest, I was not a tennis fan when I was younger. I had no role model, no posters on my walls. I liked Justine Hénin but I would not say I was a fan. I know it is quite uncommon in tennis today. Now the youngsters never miss a match, with the social media. It feels like they watch tennis all the time… I did not really care and I think it helped me in a way: I just focused on myself. I wanted to improve without copying anyone. I think you need to be careful, because trying to be like your idol may be detrimental to your game and to your own style.

Did you follow any other sport? Football, perhaps? Your father used to play for AS Săgeata Stejaru, in Romania.
My dad was a footballer but not a professional. Everything I have today, I owe it to my father. He was so strong mentally. He used to repeat I would be a champion. I never had a doubt and it is all thanks to him. He has always been super positive, he knew I would get ahead. Tennis aside, I liked handball. We used to play handball at school. I also used to follow the Romanian athletes in the Olympics, especially swimmers and gymnasts. These are sports you never see on TV, except during the Olympics.

Simona Halep© Julien Crosnier / FFT

What is your birth place like – Constanta?
It is the best during summer. You have the sea, you have beaches, nice restaurants, lounge clubs. You can wander about, it’s great. It is quite small, there are only 300,000 people living here, so you don’t feel oppressed. It is really small actually. But during the winter, it’s not that great... It’s even kind of sad. The town is empty. It is like a ‘Romanian Nice’, but with fewer elders. There are mostly young people who come for the night clubs. People come from every part of the country, even from Bucharest, just to party.

Do you know who Roland Garros was? The man after whom the tournament and site was named?
He was an aviator! I looked it up on the internet before my first final in 2014. I was asked during the tournament and I did not know the answer. I felt a bit stupid so I googled it on my way back to the hotel. So now yeah, I do know who he was. I have done my homework!