The case for: Simona Halep

 - Ian Chadband

After several heart-breaking near-misses in her quest for that elusive first major, has the time arrived for the Romanian?

Simona Halep Darren Cahill Roland-Garros  entraînement training©Cédric Lecocq / FFT

You would have to possess a heart of stone not to root for ‘try, try and try again’ warrior Simona Halep at Roland-Garros this year. The cheers will reverberate far beyond Romania should their national heroine find this moment to remind everyone on a grand stage that, honestly, she’s not some accident-prone nearly-woman but an authentic, big-time champion.

Surely after all those stumbles on the final lap and heart-breaking near-misses in her quest for that elusive first major, it has to be Simona’s moment, her time to finally remove herself from the argument about who’s the best woman player never to have won a Grand Slam?

Ah, but when did sentiment ever win you anything in sport apart from votes of sympathy?

The uncomfortable fact is that, even though she is the world No.1 and leading the 2018 points race on the women’s tour, it is probably still easier to concoct a case against Halep winning in Paris than it is to support the contention that, even in the prime of her tennis life at 26, she won’t slip up again.

First of all, then, we cannot ignore the evidence against her. She’s reached three Grand Slam finals, all of which were classics that went down to the wire over three sets and all of which she eventually lost when the heat of battle was at its most searing. Inevitably, that makes breaking her duck more problematic.

You could argue that, in the first against Maria Sharapova at Roland-Garros in 2014, she was just too green. Yet when she returned to the final last year, she was the experienced campaigner quite dominating affairs against the teenager Jelena Ostapenko, one set up and a point away from a 4-0 lead in the second, when she became too conservative in sight of the winning line and found herself drowning amid a sea of Latvian torpedoes.

Maria Sharapova Simona Halep Roland-Garros 2014.

Then there was this year’s Australian Open where she succumbed to Caroline Wozniacki after an epic so gruelling that she ended up in hospital being treated for dehydration. Not for a broken heart, as some had suggested.

Because the thing about Halep is that you actually can never defeat her spirit. Yes, she gets knocked down but she’ll get back up again and proclaim, as she did after the Melbourne trauma: “I can still smile. It’s fine. I cried, but now I’m smiling.” Her whole career is a triumph of resilience.

And while introspection inevitably accompanies defeats, she simply won’t let disappointment derail her. Her critics say that her nerves betrayed her in her biggest tests yet there really was no legislating for Ostapenko’s unstoppable bombardment in the second half of last year’s final. Halep didn’t so much choke as get throttled.

She doesn’t look backwards, either. Each disappointment only seems to strengthen her resolve and she’s achieved a consistency of performance over this past five years - she’s won 16 tournaments during that time, second only to Serena Williams over the same period on the WTA tour - to ensure that she keeps giving herself fresh chances.

Take last week. She suffered a heavy defeat to Elina Svitolina in the Rome final and had needed the trainer to treat her injured back. Yet afterwards she was still upbeat afterwards about her chances at Roland-Garros.

And so she should be. In last year’s Italian final, also against Svitolina, Halep suffered an ankle injury during her defeat. Yet a fortnight later, the Romanian still outlasted the Ukrainian even when on the brink of defeat at Roland-Garros.

Maybe Halep is slowly beginning to understand that she’s No.1 for a reason. Three finals, two semi-finals and five quarter-finals at Grand Slams since 2014 tell of a player who, like Wozniacki earlier this year, will not be deterred, who will keep battering away until the dam bursts. This will be Halep’s 32nd Slam; Wozniacki got there at her 43rd attempt.

And in defeat, the Romanian keeps learning. Like Andy Murray, who needed to feel the taste of four defeats in Slam finals before he finally won one, you sense with Halep that she has the character and ability to soak up crushing disappointments and come back steelier.

After the loss to Ostapenko, for instance, she didn’t sulk or wallow in self-pity but simply vowed that if she was ever in that position again, she would be more aggressive.

Of course, we have seen the frailties but what remains particularly admirable about Halep is her sheer indefatigability. The injuries may batter her but she won’t let them beat her either. She was in agony in Melbourne on two dodgy ankles yet still overcame the unlikeliest odds to battle through two marathons to reach the final. And while there was another call for the trainer during last week's final in Rome, she won't be making excuses ahead of her first-round encounter with American Alison Riske.

She has the game, she has the gas, she has the guts and, as one commentator put it last season, we’re talking about a competitor who just won’t let go, who’s got “the tenacity of an investigative reporter.”

Well, this is a woman who will one day land that big story. In this most open of Opens, why not this week?