Desert Reflections: Halep, The Lionhearted Fighter Girl
*(Sufficient to satisfy desire).
It is a word hardly heard in the tennis world, unless preceded by some sort of negation.
Not enough. Hardly enough. Will never be enough.
But it was on a cool afternoon at the Australian Open when such a shocking sentiment showed up in the Melbourne press room. A reporter had asked Simona Halep about an increase in expectations, a newfound pressure that could have caused the World No. 3’s quarterfinal loss to No. 10 seed Ekaterina Makarova.
Halep calmly leaned into the microphone and answered in her signature monotone:
Last year was a big result for me here. Now I cannot say it’s very big, but is enough for me.
The remark caused a furor on social media. Many pointed to a lack of context, or even a language barrier. How could the quarterfinals ever be enough for a former Grand Slam finalist and premier Rising Star?
Yet Halep’s performance vindicated the unqualified turn of phrase long before it left her lips. The Romanian looked like she’d had enough before first ball.
Playing an underrated but injured Makarova, Halep was sloppy. She kept the first set close, but failed to capitalize on multiple chances to take control of a 6-4 decision. If her shots weren’t rolling into the net, they were sitting up, prime targets for the Russian to strike.
In spite of it all, a comeback felt all but inevitable given the Romanian’s reputation for cerebral resilience.
A bagel set occurred instead.
The in-form player of 2015 began the match without a loss, and ended it under a cloud of doubt that followed her into the first round of Fed Cup. Halep lost a worryingly straightforward rubber to another Rising Star in Garbiñe Muguruza, later admitting the national spotlight was starting to burn.
“If you are first in your team it’s terrible I can say. I feel pressure and you get tired after a few days,” she told Sport 360. “Because you play for your country, and everyone is expecting you to win all your matches and I lost, so it’s not easy.”
Being a Top 10 player began to feel like a burden as well.
“I think everyone is trying to beat me now because I’m in the Top 10,” Tennis.com reported. “It was the same before when I was in the Top 50 and I was trying to play better tennis than normal against those above me.”
Now Halep drew criticism. It was time to put up or shut up; was she a champion or mere pretender? Surely the next few weeks would be enough to inform the ever-growing mob of malcontents.
But such black and white analysis obscures the Romanian’s reality. The line between “good” and “great” in the women’s game is so thick that Halep wouldn’t be the first to buckle beneath the task and risk rolling back into mediocrity. It happened to Caroline Wozniacki; it appears to be happening to Agnieszka Radwanska now.
Glass ceilings can crack or cause cranial bruising.
Whether or not Halep had hit remained to be seen, but the weight was undoubtedly on her mind as the top seed opened play in Dubai. Two solid matches brought her full circle against Makarova, again in the quarterfinals. She began with a 6-3 set of her own in the Middle East; what followed was a set and a half of pure doldrums. The Halep that looked lost in January had ostensibly reemerged, and hardly looked better as the final set got underway.
Maybe it was the memory of Melbourne, or perhaps the stimulating support of the crowd, but it slowly became clear that a three-set loss would not be enough for Simona Halep. The Romanian began to run, yell, and fight with a renewed ferocity to close out the Russian, 7-5 in the third.
If the WTA were still looking for a hero, Halep had an alter ego at the ready.
“I found my way to be a Fighter Girl on the court,” she beamed during her on-court interview.
She flew to the title from there. As play began in Indian Wells, Halep looked to be an early favorite until faced with another, tragically unexpected, emotional hurdle. Canceling her appearance at All-Access Hour to mourn the suicide of her cousin, it appeared a matter of course that she would pull out of the tournament.
Instead, Fighter Girl made an inspiring return.
“I just wanted to play this tournament because he loved tennis,” Halep said, dedicating her three-set win over Daria Gavrilova to the 29-year-old Nicia Arghir, channeling her grief into what she does best.
Halep was hardly at her best in the desert, gritting her way through a trio of three-setters to reach the semifinals. All the while, the Melbourne disappointment seemed to spur her on.
“In Australia, you know, I lost that match against Makarova. I didn’t fight till the end. I was very upset after the match, and I said that that one is the last match in my career that I’m not fighting.”
Fight she did. Halep owned the competition and the highlight reels at the BNP Paribas Open, showing off an athleticism now coated with an implacable tenacity. Winning – often on guts alone – has seen her confidence rise exponentially; the Romanian played her most comprehensive match against the highest caliber opposition (Pliskova), and relishes the opportunities playing greats like Serena Williams presents:
“When I came here, after my first match I said that I want to play in semifinals with Serena again, because I wanted to see where I am and how I stay on court.”
Williams pulled out before their scheduled semifinal, putting Halep in pole position for her first Premier Mandatory title against former champion, Jelena Jankovic. The Serb had gone the distance with Halep in all four of their previous encounters, and hardly shies from the spotlight the Romanian once found burdensome. Jankovic raced through the opening set and grabbed an all-but-decisive break in the ninth game to serve for the title.
Halep had finished second on plenty of big stages in 2014: Madrid, Roland Garros, Singapore – each time she ran into grittier, hungrier opposition. Sunday’s final was another watershed moment for the Romanian; was she a champion or mere pretender?
Playing like losing was not an option – much less enough – she ran through three straight games to level, and overcame a pair of breaks in the final set to outgun and outgut her opponent, clinching the match, 2-6, 7-5, 6-4.
Fighter Girl had struck again.
“If you cannot play your best tennis and then you fight like I did today,” Halep explained after the match. “In Australia I think I played good tennis, but I couldn’t fight. So for me, the most important thing, like I said, it’s just to have this feeling to fight till the end.”
For all her physical and mental strides, Halep still faced a hiccup in the press conference.
“How many kilos?” She laughed, unable to lift the notoriously heavy trophy, and not wanting to jeopardize her chances of competing for the rare Indian Wells/Miami double.
She had won it, and that was enough.
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