Simona Halep learns lessons in defeat to become popular champion
World number one’s French Open triumph comes after three defeats in grand slam finals
Romania’s Simona Halep celebrates winning the French Open by kissing the trophy. Photograph: Benoit Tessier/Reuters
Strength comes in all shapes and sizes. At 5ft 6in, officially, Simona Halep is not blessed in terms of simple physical stature. But the Romanian is a brilliant athlete and when it comes to inner belief, she has few peers.
Many would have thrown in the towel after losing three grand slam finals, especially the one Halep lost here 12 months ago against Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia. But instead Halep matured, learned her lessons, recovered from another heartbreaking final defeat at the Australian Open this year, took the number one ranking and on Saturday the Romanian became a grand slam champion.
Her 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 win against Sloane Stephens exorcised all her demons in one go. With all respect to the US Open champion Stephens, the outpouring of congratulations from her fellow players, via social media and private messages, said it all. This was a hugely popular win. It was also one that she earned.
“The fact that I didn’t give up after the one here last year means that I’m strong inside,” Halep told a small group of reporters a couple of hours after her victory, as she relaxed in a small interview room at Roland Garros.
“I do this just because I love this sport. I love to be competitive on court and I’ve learned in those 12 months that if you don’t give up you are able to do anything. I don’t know [where the strength comes from], actually, because I think it’s natural. And also, with the people around me, we have worked on these things. I improved it and I made it better day by day.”
It did not come easy, and perhaps it is all the better for it. Her win here was the result of years of toil and effort, of soul-searching and self questioning.
It was in March of last year that her coach Darren Cahill walked away, disappointed at Halep’s inability to shake off her negative and occasionally destructive attitude on court. It was the shock Halep needed. Two months later, after impressing Cahill with her new positivity as he watched her on TV, he was ready to return.
“We’ve had a couple of clashes over the past couple of years, some of them everybody has seen, some of them not,” he said. “But it’s all been to the learning process, she’s taken it the right way and has become a more mature, better tennis player, this is for her, she did all this work.”
Part of that work has included time with Alexis Castorri, the Florida-based sports psychologist, who famously helped Andy Murray to break through with his first grand slam title. Castorri helped Halep not to hide from the difficult questions and Cahill said addressing her weaknesses was a sign of strength itself, especially in an era when players are under so much scrutiny.
“Dealing with those pressures is really important and Simona’s been able to do that,” he said. “Alexis, in Florida, has been really important the last couple of years.
“If you’re not addressing that side of things – once upon a time, in my era, maybe admitting to that was a bit of a weakness, you had to suck it up and be tough – [but] now I think players are just turning over every stone and making sure if you need it, then you do it.”
Having claimed the number one ranking in February she has held it ever since and now, after a brief “boring” holiday – when she plans to stay quiet and away from fuss – Halep says she will be back and 100 per cent ready for Wimbledon.
“I don’t know how it’s going to be but for sure I will be ready in my head to take another step of my career,” the Romanian said. “Maybe I will change a little bit the vision, of the pressure and all the things. But for the moment I will be off for a few days and I try just to get ready, to recover and go to play on grass.”