Halep: "I keep it forever in my heart"

 - Ian Chadband

Simona Halep was beaming as she reflected on her first major triumph - a unanimously popular victory.

With the “beautiful” Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen trophy by her side and covered in her kisses, Simona Halep, the newly-minted Roland-Garros women’s champion, glanced across the room at the woman who had lit the fuse for her ambitions and revealed how she too now longs to be the inspiration for the next generation of young Romanian dreamers.

On Tuesday, Virginia Ruzici had enjoyed a special celebration on Court Philippe-Chatrier to mark the 40th anniversary of the last Romanian victory here; now on this champagne Saturday for Halep, the try-try-try and try again champion who had been guided so diligently by Virginia for a decade, it felt like the baton had been passed on through this most universally popular of victories.

It wasn’t just among the Romanian contingent on Chatrier, with their deafening ‘Si-mo-na! Si-mo-na!’ chorus, but among the whole tennis community that Halep’s win in a fourth Grand Slam final, coming from a set down to outstay and eventually outplay Sloane Stephens, was being hailed.

Halep sounded almost overwhelmed by all the love cascading around her. “All the friends, all the people that are really special for me in this life. Without them probably I couldn't come back after losing three finals of Grand Slam,” she reflected.

And nobody had been more meaningful in her career than the elegant Ruzici. “She’s right here in this room,” said Halep, pointing to her manager and prompting a shy ‘thank you’ in return. “It’s a motivation and inspiration. Forty years ago she won here, it's a special moment. The fact that it's happened here again, it's pretty special too. Virginia’s an inspiration.”

Halep thought back to when she was 14 and decided she would dedicate herself to becoming a tennis professional. “The most important moment was when I won (the Roland-Garros) juniors (a decade ago). I said that if I will win a Grand Slam in professional tennis, I want it to be the same one. So I'm really happy that I didn't win Melbourne, actually - and that it happened here!

“It's special, and I keep it forever in my heart, for sure. Paris is my favourite city, actually, romantic city.” And at Roland-Garros, her favourite Grand Slam. “I always said that if I'm going to win one, I want it to be here,” she said.

It was infectious to see Halep’s joy as she reflected on her dramatic afternoon and how she could never have got to this point “without smiling.”

She laughed about how she used to buy tickets for all the Romanian fans who’d follow her but there were just too many of them now.

Then she chuckled at the question which used to torment her about whether she would get more satisfaction from being the world No.1 or a Grand Slam winner. “Now both! I can say they are the same. Doesn't matter anymore,” she said triumphantly.

Then there was the drama of the match itself, as she reflected on how her coach Darren Cahill had “put a little bit pressure” on her to “go out and win it” at the fourth attempt and that’s maybe why she did.

With admirable honesty, she also conceded that she “couldn’t breathe very well” when serving at 5-0 up in the final set just when the title was now surely at last in her grasp.

And now to the future. “Well, nothing changes. I'm a Grand Slam champion, but tomorrow is a new day, so I have to start again," she said. "The grass is coming now I'm off. I just want to enjoy this moment.”

And to wallow in all the affection being showered on her. “I want to say thank you to Petra Kvitova. She sent me few messages after I lost last year here and Melbourne at the final," Halep revealed.

“She said ‘It's gonna come, that I just have to keep working.’ It's nice to see the players are happy about my victory and about this trophy.”

Yet it wasn’t just the players, she was told. The whole tennis world was saluting her.