Simona Halep had many obstacles in her path as she stepped on court Friday to play her first round match at the BNP Paribas Open.
Her cousin was found dead of an apparent suicide in Constanta – close to Halep’s home in Romania – on Monday. She immediately cancelled a training session upon hearing the news, and did not appear along with other top seeds on Wednesday, during All-Access Hour.
Speculation hovered whether she might withdraw from the tournament altogether.
But out walked the No. 3 seed, through the swirl of emotions that has surely gripped her and her family, to triumph in the face of tragedy. She defeated Russian-born Australian qualifier, Daria Gavrilova, 2-6, 6-1, 6-1.
“I just wanted to play this tournament because he loved tennis,” Halep began. “He played [the sport] many years. So I just decided to stay here because I think it was a little bit easier for me to pass this situation.”
To reconcile the emotional turmoil with the reality of her own situation, Halep dedicated her opening-round match to Nicia Arghir, her 29-year-old cousin.
“I want to dedicate this match to him because he loved tennis and he was very talented,” she said in a steadfast voice.
She was similarly strong in keeping reporters from continuing this line of questioning, declaring, “I don’t think I want to speak about this situation. It’s really tough. It’s too painful.”
Her mood lifted when she talked about the match, though.
“[It’s] very hot,” she said, smiling. “Very hot. I’m not used to practice at this weather because in Romania it’s very cold now. But I had the week before here, so I am prepared to play this tournament, and I’m prepared for the weather.”
Halep struggled in the first set all the same, which was obvious to those in attendance in Stadium 3. As she trudged from one side of the court to the other, she characteristically slapped her thighs more than once in frustration. Some of the distress stemmed from the fact this was her first encounter with the talented former junior prodigy.
“Was first time today; I didn’t know how she’s playing,” Halep began. “I just spoke with my coach before the match and I decided to just play my game.”
She admitted to feeling nervous walking on court. On an early changeover, last year’s French Open finalist called on coach Victor Ionita for some advice; when she resumed, she had relaxed her hand enough to groove her forehand, one of her most potent weapons. Her serve, though, suffered. She double faulted to lose the first set and wracked up a total of seven for the match.
To regroup, the former World No. 2 draped an ice scarf around her shoulders and closed her eyes. She pinched the upper part of her nose and bent her head down, as if in prayer.
She looked serene and intent on reversing the trajectory of the match.
Halep learned a valuable lesson about the importance of resilience during her quarterfinal loss to Ekaterina Makarova at the Australian Open – a match that caused many to question the Romanian’s own self-belief.
“In Australia, I lost that match against Makarova,” she began. “I didn’t fight till the end. I was very upset after the match; I said that one is the last match in my career that I’m not fighting. You know you can turn back the match at every point. You have to try everything and run to all balls.”
The Romanian’s philosophy has served her well. At the end of 2012, she was ranked No. 47. In 2013, she’d moved to No. 11. Last year was her first in the Top 10, let alone Top 3, where she ultimately finished.
Halep, who says she does not look forward in the draw, will next play America’s Vavara Lepchenko.
Although she remains disappointed with her performance in Melbourne, the No. 3 seed has won tournaments before and since: Shenzhen and Dubai, elevating her career total to 10. She is one of two players to have won two titles this year.
The other is Timea Bacsinszky, the No. 27 seed at Indian Wells.
Bacsinszky also came through a three-set tussle Friday afternoon, defeating New Zealand’s Marina Erakovic, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. The Swiss woman, though, was not fighting the same demons and was quite carefree when asked about conditions.
“I adapt myself really well, actually, for already two weeks now,” she began. “With the heat, wind, and humidity of Acapulco, and later [in Monterrey] the freezing weather, then the hot weather, rain and almost snow. Now in dry Indian Wells with wind and no wind. I just try to adapt. Weather here is fun.”
The World No. 26 spent a great deal of time becoming familiar with the weather in both Acapulco and Monterrey, winning both titles against Caroline Garcia of France. She began the season by reaching the final of Shenzhen, where she upset Petra Kvitova but lost to Halep.
“It’s a great period,” Bacsinszky said. “I cannot complain. I still find a way to win matches, so I’m really happy about that, and I’m really proud. It’s definitely the best period of my life. Even if I would have lost today I would have been really happy. If you walk off the court knowing that you gave your best and you tried to work, that’s the goal of every match I play.”
Although the last two years have been filled with positive returns, Bacsinszky’s life was not always a road paved with victories. Just last year at Roland Garros, she spoke extensively about her trials and tribulations. After battling injuries in 2011 through 2013, she turned to a psychologist.
“I had lots of things of my childhood, which came up, and whether it [tennis] was really my game to play,” she told the press. “I had to heal or to understand a lot of things.”
She stopped playing tennis in 2013 and began attending “hotel school.” But after an email from Roland Garros tournament officials, she discovered she’d earned a place in the qualifying draw.
“I was really shocked,” she said, having given up the game for six months and was the last player to get her credential. She was repeatedly asked if she was, in fact, a tennis player. “It’s amazing how life on one point can just change.. Everything went together.”
Bacsinszky couldn’t meet Halep until the semifinal, but she gets No. 9 seed, Ekaterina Makarova – the Romanian’s Melbourne conqueror – instead. A tough ask, but not impossible for a woman on a 11-match winning streak.
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