EXCLUSIVE: Simona Halep - Rising star of women’s tennis

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Beating the best: Simona Halep dreams of winning a Grand Slam next season.

The world of women’s tennis is famous for its Serenas and Sharapovas – ladies with huge personalities, varied interests, diverse skills, and a popularity that transcends the sport.

Maria Sharapova traverses the globe mar­keting her candy line Sugarpova, and designs shoes for luxury brand Cole Haan, while Ser­ena Williams has done everything from acting to fashion, and plenty in between.

With the pair leading the WTA rankings, it could be hard to notice those next in line, especially if they’re as understated as world No3 Simona Halep. Compared to the two women ahead of her – and some behind her as well – the 23-year-old Romanian may appear to lack the star quality to generate mass appeal.

But sooner or later, the world is bound to appreciate how special Halep really is. Behind that quiet, unassuming exterior, is a quirky, funny and thoughtful individual with incred­ible confidence and true grit.

The Roland Garros runner-up possesses two qualities that many of her peers would love to boast – a no-nonsense attitude and a real clarity in the way she thinks about the sport and herself.

Just 18 months ago, the Constanta-native was a qualifier in Rome, where she was ranked No64 in the world. In the third round against the then world No4 Agnieszka Radwanska, something clicked for Halep.

She beat Radwanska in three sets before taking out two more top-20 players to reach the semi-finals. It was the start of a remark­able year and a half, which flew by like one sensational gymnastics vault routine from Halep, with Rome serving as the springboard.

In that period, Halep has won eight titles (including six trophies from six finals in 2013), has reached the French Open final, risen to No2 in the world, posted 12 top-10 victories and finished as runner-up at the WTA Finals.

“Last year I played unbelievably,” Halep told Sport360°.

“I thought that I could play at the highest level, beating top players and af­ter Rome I started growing my confidence in my game. I felt very well on court, I just took the pleasure and I was fighting for everything. I believe I’m strong mentally and I think this is helping me every day to wake up again and do my job, the hard work and everything else.”

Not everyone can match her solid record in finals. Asked if she surprised herself at all during that six-title run, Halep replied: “No, because after I won the first title, I knew how to manage the emotions before the finals and maybe that’s why I had more experience that helped me in these moments.”

She ended last season ranked No11 and says she had no problem carrying her momentum into 2014, which she kicked off by reaching the quarter-finals at the Australian Open – her first time to make that stage at any major.

Her career-best moment came at the French Open a few months later when she took out Andrea Petkovic to reach her first major final. Halep was stopped at the last step by Sharapova in the second-longest ladies final in the tournament’s history.

Throughout this season, Halep and Shara­pova have developed a widely-popular rivalry which showcases their contrasting styles. Halep is all about shot selection, variety and great movement while Sharapova is about dominating the baseline with her sheer power.

They’ve faced off three times in 2014, and all three times, Sharapova has won in three tight sets. When asked how she perceived their rivalry, Halep chuckles before saying: “I think I had bad luck during the matches. I was very close to winning, that made me very happy that I’m very close to her. She’s a great player, she’s a champion, she won many titles, she has more experience than me. But I played good matches against her and I’m looking forward to have many more. Maybe one day I will win one match.”

With a 0-5 career record against her, is Halep developing a mental block against Sharapova? “No it’s not my personality to be worried to play her again. I believe that I have my chance every match and just to think that it’s another day always,” she added.

Halep may have been flying since Rome last year but in reality, it hasn’t all been smooth. She rolled her ankle against Eugenie Bou­chard to lose in the Wimbledon semi-finals last July and says she regrets not being more careful. She picked up a hip injury in Beijing late in the season and had to retire from her quarter-final there.

“I had a tough period in China. I didn’t believe anymore that I could find the way to fight during the points and during the match­es,” she admitted. “But I have my team close to me and my family also. They were tell­ing me ‘it’s just a period and you can pass it because you’re strong’. So that helped me.”

And the turnaround could not have been more impressive.

Halep had lost confidence in her serve, so spent 20 minutes every day working on it, and having just recovered from her hip injury, she entered the WTA Finals in Singapore with low expectations but renewed desire.

That led her to her first-ever top-three win, a straight sets drubbing of Williams, the world No1, in the round robin stage.

Her character was tested there however. She could have made sure Williams was out of the competition had she lost to Ana Ivanovic in two sets in the last match of the group stage. She lost in three instead and while many lauded her ethics, others – including her coach Wim Fissette – said she should have been smarter and eliminated the biggest threat to her in the competition, especially as she ended up losing the final to Williams.

“I didn’t care. I’m not afraid to play against Serena again. I’m looking forward only to play my best on court, to do everything I can in that day and in that match,” Halep had said after her Ivanovic match.

“I have no regrets,” she added after her final loss to Williams.

Now in her offseason, Halep said her plans involve one big party to celebrate her accomplishments this year and a shopping trip where she can treat herself to something special. Porsche beat her to it though. Upon her arrival in Romania, they gave her a red 911 Carrera 4 Coupe, even though they’re not her sponsors (yet?).

One more thing Halep might be getting? A stylist. It has taken her time to get accus­tomed to the glamorous side of her job and she joked that she felt like she was packing for a wedding when she took three dresses with her to Singapore.

“I just buy the dresses from the shops, may­be it’s a good idea to have a stylist. I’ll think about it,” she says with a laugh.

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