After losing a tumultuous three hour final to Maria Sharapova at Roland Garros, Simona Halep went to her chair, put her head in her towel and cried. Like so many who have lost their first Grand Slam final, Halep was overwhelmed by the realisation that a once in a lifetime opportunity may have just gone begging.
But by the time she reached the interview room, the initial raw emotion had begun to fade, to be replaced by a sense of perspective at what has been a remarkable twelve months. At the 2013 French Open, Halep was seen as a dangerous floater, the kind of player who would leave the seeds a little hot and bothered if they saw their name next to her in the first round draw. But with a ranking of 47 she was nothing more, and few expected her to trouble the second week.
Fast forward twelve months and the 22 year old will be the new world No.3 come Monday after a brilliant fortnight which saw her reach the final without even dropping a set.
“I think everything clicked for me in Rome last year when I beat (Agnieszka) Radwanska,” Halep said. “After that match I really thought that I can play at a higher level and beat the top players. I started to be more aggressive. At that moment I had more confidence in myself.”
Halep was an outstanding junior who shot to prominence after winning the 2008 French Open girls title. But while she always stood out through her speed, and ability to work the entire court, it took her time to develop against the devastating power hitters who hold sway on the WTA Tour.
Standing at 5’6, Halep is a slight figure compared to most of the female players on tour but it’s a mark of her talent that she rarely looks rushed, not even against a player with Sharapova’s weight of shot. Halep’s quick feet and ability to change the direction of the ball at will, even when struck with extreme pace, kept the match in the balance right until the final two games as Sharapova’s sheer force of will dragged her over the line.
But as she said afterwards, she has much to be proud of. “It was really tough before the match to manage my emotions,” she admitted. “It was a big match for me. I tried to pretend to myself that it was just the final of a small tournament. But I think I had good tactics today. I opened up the angles well and I was hitting the ball strong.”
Sharapova has won all four of her matches against Halep on tour but this was the closest yet, a riposte to the many pundits who suggested that the petite Romanian would be overwhelmed both mentality and physically against one of the most intimidating ball-strikers on the tour,
“She did what always does, to hit the ball very strong,” Halep said. “She got such a good kick off her serve and it was difficult for me to return. And she was moving really well. But I think it was a good, very good match today, a good final. The atmosphere was incredible. I will remember this match forever.”
Halep now goes to Wimbledon in a couple of weeks time where it remains to be seen if she can translate her formidable clay-court game into grass-court season. However, few would put it past her making another dominant run at SW19. She has long been characterized by a formidable drive for improvement and in the immediate aftermath of her loss to Sharapova, she was already outlining what she needed to work on, on the practise court.
“I have to work more at my forehand, because I made a few important mistakes at important moments,” she said. “I'm really happy for the way how I played today, because I think I played my best tennis. I tried just to stay very focused during the points. I did well. But with my forehand I want to improve more, and when I hit a forehand cross-court, I want to be able to open up the court more.”
But now is the time for celebration and Halep said she will reward herself with a well-deserved indulgence of her love for shopping in some of Paris’ famous boutiques.
“I haven’t thought about it yet but I will buy something big for sure,” she said. “I now have some time to decide what I want to buy. It will be something very special.”