Pressure-free Simona Halep chases Australian Open glory

 - Simon Cambers

The RG18 champion is confident that she can enjoy another good season and she is aiming high again

Simona Halep hitting a forehand during the Australian Open 2018 final©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

For some players, the quest for grand slam glory comes relatively easily. For Simona Halep, the path was littered with heartbreak as she pushed her body almost to breaking point.

But good things come to those who wait, work and believe and at Roland-Garros last summer, the Romanian finally made it over the line with victory over Sloane Stephens in the French Open final.

Beaten in the final in Paris in 2014 and again in 2017, Halep left Australia last year after requiring hospital treatment for dehydration and exhaustion after her defeat by Caroline Wozniacki.

“I was just tired and exhausted“

Having finished her media and anti-doping commitments at around 2am that night, Halep suddenly felt ill. “When I went to the hotel I felt a little bit dizzy and I panicked,” Halep said, in an interview on the eve of this year’s Australian Open.

“I called someone and went to the hospital to have some magnesium because my muscles were done. “I spent some hours there and then I came back to the hotel in the morning and everything was good. So I was just tired and exhausted. 

“The next day I was OK. But for about two and a half months it was really tough to recover my body 100 per cent and also to go on court and play with my injury as well. It was a really tough period, it was exhausting.”

Simona Halep suffering from dehydration at the Australian Open 2019©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
Getting over the line in Paris

The final, which lasted almost three hours and was played in brutal heat, with the roof kept open, might have left her distraught but Halep was philosophical, realising she had given everything and done nothing wrong. Four and a half months later she was Roland Garros champion and now, with the monkey off her back, all that pressure is gone.

“It's something that I dreamed for. It's real now and I don't have the pressure that I want to win the tournament. I won it and now everything that comes after is a bonus. It feels more easier to face the tournaments and also to travel that much. When I have a tough opponent, it's just about that day, nothing else, not about the result or the tournament results.”

Having experienced the pain, both physical and mental, getting over the line in Paris was that much more satisfying. “If I could have won in 2014, (it would have been) less pressure,” she said. “I think life could (have been) different. But I don't complain. When you wait more, the success is sweeter so I take it.”

Simona Halep and Caroline  Wozniacki after the 2018 Australian Open final©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
One big change

Halep begins the year as the world No 1, relaxed after having Christmas at home in Romania for the first time in a decade. As she recovered from a back injury suffered at the back-end of an exhausting season, Halep enjoyed the kind of home comforts she has sacrificed for more than a decade.

“It was great, I was in my home town, with my family and friends,” she said. “New Year’s Eve, the first time after a long time, I had a big party. I enjoyed a lot, and I can say it was too good and it was tough to leave. I had a little bit of champagne, yeah.”

The one big change for Halep this year will be the absence in her support box of Darren Cahill, the Australian who was so instrumental in her success. Cahill told Halep he needed to spend more time with his family and she accepted it immediately.

“His son needs his support and the whole family, so I think it was the best decision for him," she said. "Also the four years that we had were really tough, difficult, so the road was not easy to get to No 1 and also winning a grand slam. I think for him it was the best decision. For me it’s not that bad. I needed some time to rest, less pressure, so we still are very good friends. He came here a few days, to give me advice. He’s a great person, we will be forever friends.”

Halep knows that replacing Cahill will not be easy and she plans to take her time. Though the Australian has been on court with her in Melbourne, she will have to do the problem-solving alone over the coming months. 

Hope to find someone by my side

A strong character, it’s something she’s not afraid of but she knows it will not be straightforward. “I have been alone for the last two months and it’s not easy at all,” she said. “Every time, I say that at this level you need a coach. 100 percent for that. I know maybe I lost some time now, because I didn’t have a coach, you need someone to direct you, and to give you advice. OK, we know how to play tennis, we played so much, we know the opponents, but it’s not the same. I hope in the close future to find someone to be by my side.”

Whoever she finds, Halep is confident that she can enjoy another good season and the 27-year-old is aiming high again. “When I set my goals before this year, I said I had the courage to dream again for No 1,” she said. “I know it’s not easy, you have to be very consistent and every week, to be full so I don’t know about my back. That’s one. And of course one of the grand slams, I don’t take just one, any one if I can win, it’s going to be huge.”

In the more immediate term, she faces a tough start to her title bid against Kaia Kanepi, the big-hitting Estonian who beat her in the first round of the US Open last September. Having played just one match in the build-up, nothing is guaranteed and Halep knows she may be in for a tough battle.

“I worked hard (in the off-season),” she said. “I was motivated. Coming here I feel ready to start but for sure I am late in this country and I cannot have big expectations. But anything can happen and I have just to be confident.”