Roland-Garros breakthrough inspires Halep for one last push

 - Danielle Rossingh

The world’s top-ranked female tennis player, and reigning RG champion, is in high demand this week.

Tournament volunteers hover around Simona Halep with a dozen rackets ready to be signed at the Wuhan Open.

As the world’s top-ranked female tennis player, and reigning Roland-Garros champion, Halep is in high demand this week in this rapidly-growing city of 11 million in central China.

The day Halep overcame her demons

Having attended the draw ceremony for the event, one of the most lucrative on the women’s WTA Tour with a prize money pot of $2.8 million, the 26-year-old Romanian hit the red carpet at the player party at the sprawling Wuhan Hilton.

After a whirlwind of a season, during which she won her first grand slam title on her fourth attempt, Halep is in a bit of pain as she is about to embark on one big last push before the season-ending WTA Finals in Singapore next month.

“My back locked up a little bit during the practice yesterday, I don’t know why,” Halep told at the Wuhan Open.

Aches and pains are part and parcel of being a tennis player at this stage of the tennis season, which is one of the longest in professional sports.

It’s at moments like this that Halep allows herself to go back to that hot Saturday afternoon at Roland-Garros on June 9, the day she overcame her demons to become a grand slam singles champion at last.

“Last year I felt the pressure”

“Of course, you move on, otherwise it is not easy to go and win matches,” Halep said. “But when I close my eyes sometimes, and I’m really tired and a little bit sad of what is happening during the day, I just take the memories back, and it gives me happiness.”

Halep’s 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 win over American Sloane Stephens came a year after a heartbreaking loss in the French Open final, when she lost from a winning position against the unseeded Latvian Jelena Ostapenko.

“Last year...I felt the pressure and I didn’t manage it very well,” Halep said. “This year, I said, everyone is for me and I just have to put it into a positive way. I felt the energy, and I felt the power to be able to win that match.”

Her victory was celebrated wildly in Romania, where she is a superstar with her own postage stamp.

Three days after Halep’s triumph, only the second for Romania since her manager, Virginia Ruzici, took the French Open title in 1978, more than 20,000 people showed up in a Bucharest football stadium to welcome her home.  

Unbelievable atmosphere

“It was an amazing atmosphere, and also seeing that the people are appreciating your efforts and your results, it gives me more power to go ahead and more motivation,” said Halep.

“It was unbelievable, I didn’t really expect that, I expected about 5,000 people,” she said. “It was really impressive.”

After reaching back-to-back finals at the Australian Open and Roland-Garros, Halep lost in the third round of Wimbledon and suffered a shock defeat to Estonian Kaia Kanepi in the first round of the US Open.

Still, she has been consistent on the women’s Tour, winning titles in Shenzhen, China and in Montreal, Canada, and has a big lead in the rankings over world No. 2 and Australian Open winner Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark.

“To finish No. 1 this year, I hope to do that,” Halep said, when asked about her goals. “And next year, I was thinking in the car coming here today, we have a big chance in the Fed Cup. I will set my goal after Singapore for sure, but one of them is to play my best tennis in Fed Cup.”