Having grown up in a country without any grass courts, Simona Halep never quite believed she could win Wimbledon.
When asked by a BBC radio reporter shortly before Wimbledon what she thought of grass, the 2018 Roland-Garros champion said: “picnics.”
EPISODE 8/10. In 10 days, 10 players and 10 stories, here are the tales of a fascinating year
All of that changed one cloudy Saturday afternoon at the All England Club in July, when Halep produced an almost flawless performance to beat Serena Williams, the greatest female grass-court player of her time, 6-2, 6-2 in less than an hour.
“I'm very sure that was the best match of my life,” said Halep after becoming the first Romanian, woman or man, to win Wimbledon.
“I knew that I have to be aggressive, being 100 percent for every ball, that I don't have to let her come back to the match because she's so powerful and so strong.”
The day before the final, not too many people in the international press room gave the 27-year-old much of a shot.
After all, the women’s final pitted Halep, a one-time semi-finalist in 2014, against Williams, a seven-time Wimbledon champion armed with one of the best serves in the game.
Halep’s lone victory over Williams in 10 matches was back in 2014, when she beat the former top-ranked American in straight sets in a round-robin group match at the WTA Finals.
Williams was a big favourite with bookmakers, too, who made the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion a 1-2 chance to win her eighth title. That meant a €2 bet would yield €1, plus the original stake. Halep was a best-priced 8-5.
Halep had always excelled on the slow red clay, which is perfectly suited for her athletic all-court coverage and strong tactical understanding of the game.
None of that mattered when Halep walked out onto Wimbledon’s Centre Court just after 2PM.
The Romanian was in the zone from the start, breaking her 37-year-old opponent in the first game before holding to love as she moved the most successful tennis player of the Open era all over court with perfect tennis.
Whatever Williams threw at her, Halep always had the answer, and at times it seemed she was seeing the little yellow ball like a football.
With Halep leading 5-2, Williams handed her opponent a set point with a volley error and lost the set after a loose forehand return off a body serve.
Was Halep about to pull off a major upset?
After a winning volley in the opening game of the second set, Williams let out an almighty roar, usually the sign she would stage one of her legendary comebacks.
But any hopes Williams had of turning the match around were dashed at 2-2, when she was broken once again.
Another break followed, and suddenly Halep found herself serving for the title at 5-2. After setting up three match points, Williams dumped a forehand in the net and Halep sunk to her knees, holding her arms aloft.
The match between Halep and Williams contained 93 points, yet Halep made only three unforced errors, and struck 13 winners.
Halep had told reporters after her quarter-final win over China’s Shuai Zhang that she now “loved” the grass. Two matches later, she was the champion.
“She literally played out of her mind,” said Williams, after her third consecutive defeat in a Grand Slam final. “It was a little bit deer in headlights for me. When a player plays like that you just have to take your hat off.”
Daniel Dobre, Halep’s coach, had always believed his protege would conquer Wimbledon one day.
“Yes, for sure [I believed her game was ready to win Wimbledon], because I saw her playing on fast courts, indoors, and elsewhere, and for me, her game is more for grass than for clay or something,” Dobre told the Wimbledon Channel after Halep’s victory.
Just like after her Roland-Garros win, which came after heartbreak in three previous major finals, Halep received a hero's welcome at the Bucharest National Stadium, where she showed off the Venus Rosewater dish to 30,000 people.
Halep, who is so popular back home she has her own postage stamp, was also given Romania's Order of the Star, which is the highest distinction in her country. It will come as no surprise that she will be Romania's flagbearer for the Tokyo Olympics next year.
Although Halep won Wimbledon, her lone title this year, she reached just one other Grand Slam quarter-final, at Roland-Garros, and struggled with injury during the Asian swing in the autumn.
Still, she is happy with her season.
“I’m not disappointed with myself and with the year,” she told reporters in during the season-ending WTA Finals in Shenzhen, China. “I put it next to 2018.
“I have to be more consistent for the practice and for the work. This year I was kind of up and down a little bit too much.
“I feel more confident for what’s coming up. I am motivated.”
Now reunited once more with Darren Cahill, the Australian who guided her to her first Grand Slam win at Roland-Garros, don’t be surprised to see Halep go on another tear in 2020.