Think back to ten days ago, to the start of the season’s second Slam. The red clay was fresh and neatly swept. The women’s draw was heavily scrutinized. Certain names were written, not in pencil but pen. Inquisitive eyes fell on the WTA Tour’s newest addition to the Top 4. It cannot be said those eyes were particularly expectant. Madrid finalist Simona Halep, relevant as her Tour results had made her, was little more than a darkhorse at a tournament featuring former champions like Serena Williams, Li Na, and Maria Sharapova. At a tournament where she had failed to progress past the second round in her entire career.
At a tournament she won as junior.
History has borne out the Halepesque, players who explode into prominence, thriving on points earned in locations obscure or otherwise insignificant. Full of promise, somehow lacking. Not enough power or height, speed or technique. What follows is a period of leveling off, when beating the best becomes futile and beating the rest becomes boring. Though the relative stabilization of the WTA Tour prevents such a player from stumbling up to (Slamless) No. 1, we still view Simona Halep as a stranger, and eye her with childlike suspicion.
Who is she, and why is she ranked so high?
An attack commences, a potent combination of body blows from peers and job interviews held by the press (“What exactly are your qualifications, Mademoiselle?”). It is a high school hazing few survive.
The Simona Halep CV lacks an anchor, a “major” result or victory, but note the following listed under “special skills:” work ethic, perspective, and sense of humor. In a draw that has become interesting in some places and a veritable wasteland in others, the Romanian has been quietly efficient through five matches. No broken racquets or cries of desperation. No weary eyes shot up to the heavens. Ten days into the average major tournament and it might have been easy to miss the tactician with a game more durable than teflon. Here, she effortlessly wades through the carnage, and coolly steps over those who fell before her.
A major playing out as this one has could have left Halep caught in a duality of damnation. Succeed, and be the beneficiary of a hopelessly soft draw, hollowing out victory at its core. Fail, and the job interviews become criminal interrogations.
“What were you doing, Mademoiselle? Impersonating the elite?”
Ten days later, and Halep can be accused of neither abject failure nor empty success. She cannot add to her 2014 tally of five top 10 wins before the final. A resurgent Andrea Petkovic (seeded 28th) stands between her and a likely rematch of the Madrid final that saw her battle, but ultimately bow, to Sharapova. Yet, the highest remaining seed has looked largely uninhibited in victory, most notably over two consistent major performers in Sloane Stephens and Svetlana Kuznetsova.
A game from the finish line against the Russian, a two-time Grand Slam champion, the Romanian exhibited the same nerves that froze her mind and locked her arm in Australia. Memories of a demoralizing loss to Dominika Cibulkova in her first major quarterfinal came rushing back as Halep suddenly looked like an imposter – and how! – serving three double faults, the third coming on a match point.
Dinara Safina might have had to fight back tears in the face of such a tragedy. Jelena Jankovic might have glared at her supporters. Caroline Wozniacki might have shrieked in frustration.
Simona Halep laughed.
Where was the pressure so palpable in those who came before her? The crushing weight of expectation? The fear of mocking eyes and lips that murmur, “I told you so?” All were vanquished with a chuckle and sigh from the Romanian, who finished the match with impressive shots off the ground, with pace absorbed less from her opponents and generated more with a force of nature called “confidence.”
The jocularity followed into the post-match interview. An umpteenth reminder of her 2009 elective surgery could have provoked pursed lips and a tightened jaw. Instead, more laughter. Her refusal to discuss the matter further was delivered with a smile and, to borrow her signature turn of phrase, “with pleasure.”
Ten days later, Simona Halep is one match from a maiden major final. Has she proven herself? Yes, but not of what inquisitive minds might expect. The 22-year-old’s French Open campaign is a true microcosm of her ascension. Both have been conducted with that same pleasure, without a desire to prove anything.
Except her love of the game.
Regardless of whether she wins it all, such a revelation means she has already won.