She’ll be back.
It was spoken with a Schwarzeneggerian certainty, a reassurance echoed as Roland Garros finalist Simona Halep hid under a towel. The Romanian had just capped the tournament of her career with the fight of her life against a game and worthy champion in Maria Sharapova. Of course she’ll be back.
The gravity of Halep’s rise allows us to speak with unqualified confidence about a woman who was ranked No. 57 a year ago. She was neither darkhorse nor dangerous floater then, losing with little fanfare to Carla Suarez Navarro in a non-televised first round encounter. Now she is a player to be feared, a clay courter with an appetite for concrete. A Henin-sized sprite who emulated her idol in her ability to take her Russian rival to the edge of defeat on one of the biggest stages in tennis. She should be back. She deserves to be back.
But will she?
Recent history rules against the Romanian. For the last seven first-time major finalists – including Dominika Cibulkova and now-retired Marion Bartoli – lightening has yet to strike twice. Yet it is at this moment when, standing against the likes of Samantha Stosur and Sabine Lisicki, her often pejoratively noted lack of power becomes an asset. Hers is not a game built on searing shots clipping the corners. We’ve come to gauge impressiveness by volume of head-exploding winners rather than juxtaposing those against head-shaking errors and determining a proper ratio.
Simona Halep is an improvement on, rather than a replica of, the Caroline Wozniacki model. Few as they might have been yesterday, Halep continued to look for opportunities to go into the open court against Sharapova, to run around a pristine backhand to attack with her forehand. Balanced aggression may be boring, but the Braveheart style of play coined by Petra Kvitova hardly guarantees a cinematic ending on the tennis court.
The Romanian’s clean bill of health has been essential to her ascent. Aches, pulls, and strains too often halted momentum and derailed progress in the past. A lower-back injury last spring had stunted her ranking, and was the impetus behind a homegrown wildcard into the mandatory event in Madrid. In place of pain, paranoia now remains. Halep’s 2014 resume at first seems spotty: success one week, disappointment the next. A closer look reveals her profound concern for not only her own health, but for peaking at the right time. A walkover in Rome after a runner’s-up in Madrid preceded her Roland Garros. The new No. 3 is banking on her talent early, and evidently unwilling to drain this vein of good form too quickly.
All of this ignores the all-important mental aspect of this ultimately unpredictable game. With potential comes pressure, a phenomenon too few view as a privilege. A nervous wreck in Melbourne, Halep was calm in Paris until an umpire overrule unhinged her at 4-4 in the third. Moved by the crowd’s support and admiration, she wept into her towel. The woman who emerged surprised many.
She smiled. She bore her teeth into a grin as she walked to the podium. She beamed as she accepted her trophy.
Absent were the tears of a frustrated young woman regretting her luck. The far out stare of an in-over-her-head journeywoman questioning her very surroundings was nowhere to be found. It was a reaction that shocked a media more used to a meltdown than serenity in defeat. Her English, tinged with a breathless monotone, belied an organic response to the press.
I was crying at that moment for a few minutes, and then I was smiling because I said that it was my first Grand Slam final, and I have to be happy, to smile, because I did everything on court.
Simona Halep came to the French Open fit, healthy, and prepared to play her game. She leaves Paris satisfied and seemingly determined to maintain her place among the elite. Her play in the final confirmed a victory over a big gun like Sharapova is possible.
She can beat the best. She can make another major final.
But will she?