After starting the year with several question marks, Simona Halep has rolled into form in Madrid. The Romanian followed up a topsy-turvy quarterfinal performance against compatriot Irina-Camelia Begu with a convincing victory over Samantha Stosur to make her second Mutua Madrid Open final — something was far from being a given at the end of last month.
The past two and a half weeks have seen some turnaround from Simona Halep.
When she took to the Court in Stuttgart at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in her first match against Laura Siegemund, the World No. 7 looked tired. Having twisted her ankle during a hectic Fed Cup weekend at home in Cluj, Halep arrived not only physically but also mentally exhausted — even if she tried to convince herself and the press otherwise.
“It was a good week,” Halep said a few days after losing the Fed Cup relegation tie with the Romanian team against Cluj. “I took it like a positive week and I was working really hard during the week, hard practices. I’m okay. I feel good.”
As her opening round against Siegemund in Stuttgart showed, Halep felt the very opposite of “good.” Not only was the 2014 Roland Garros runner-up a step slow and still slightly inhibited by her ankle issue, but a draining previous two weeks were took their toll on the 24 year-old — she went off-court halfway through the second set, struggling with her breathing and looking like a shadow of herself.
Fast forward two weeks, and…
Halep entered the press room in Madrid on Friday night with a beaming smile and a full beer crate handing out ice-cooled hop-flavored goodness to the media — a vastly different picture from the one fans, media and spectators alike saw a fortnight ago.
“[A] long time ago,” she laughed when asked about the last time she produced tennis as good as she did on Friday night — a 6-2, 6-0 win in just about 50 minutes.
“I don’t know. Maybe last year in USA when I did those great results — I don’t want to think too much about when I played last time as good as today. I just want to take it like a very good match, a normal match.”
It was a very good match — Samantha Stosur looked like a game opponent for the first 15 minutes, but as soon as Halep adjusted to the heavy spin off of the Australian’s forehand, the Romanian was not only redirecting pace with ease, but also swinging as freely and unbothered as she’s been in a very long time.
In fact, she’s been swinging away rather freely all week. Before the tournament even got underway, a lot of the talk was about Serena Williams withdrawing from the tournament.
A lot of the talk was about whether Victoria Azarenka might be able to back up her strong results from the beginning of the year and carry them into the clay season — a traditionally difficult portion of the year for her.
A lot of the talk was about Garbiñe Muguruza and Carla Suarez Navarro, playing the biggest tournament in their home country and whether they’d be able to cope with the pressure at home.
A lot of the talk was about two unlikely top seeds at a clay Premier Mandatory event — namely Agnieszka Radwanska and Angelique Kerber.
Very little talk was about Halep — and the Romanian was perfectly happy to drop off people’s radar.
With the exception of the second set against Begu, where Halep admitted she checked out mentally after being irritated by loud coaching from her compatriot’s coach, the World No. 7 has looked more composed — and perhaps more importantly, relaxed — as she has in quite some time. The experience in Stuttgart was difficult for Halep and the likely culmination of the pressure and huge expectation in her home country crashing down on her became the low point in her season thus far — almost like a Fed Cup hangover, if you will.
“Yeah, when I came here, I said that I have to forget everything about Stuttgart,” Halep explained. “It was very tough for me. I just practiced very hard every day. Like I said at the beginning, I stayed more on court and I was working more. I’m more relaxed. I think this is the key, and that’s why I repeat and say always, because this makes me more confident. It’s easier for me to play my game if I am relaxed.”
Not just on-court, but also away from it. After yesterday’s match, the Romanian spent a lot of time smiling, cracking jokes and covering a beer bet that transpired in the media centre over the week — lo and behold, one day later after her semifinal win, she entered the press conference room with beer crate, handing out bottles to those in attendance. While Halep herself was happy enough to provide the cold beverage, she declined to have one herself.
After all, Halep has to prepare for her final against Dominika Cibulkova on Saturday, and based on the Slovak’s fighting spirit and rising confidence in Madrid, it is bound to be a difficult battle.
“I expect a tough one as well because is the final, and always the last match of the tournament is difficult,” Halep assessed. “But, I have experience. I feel ready to play. She plays fast. She hits the balls. So, yeah, I know her pretty well. I beat her; she beat me. It’s open match. Everyone can win — but I will do everything to win it. I really want it. It’s my dream to win here. We will see tomorrow.”
Overall, the week in Madrid has done Halep a world of good — particularly considering she went into the tournament as one player with the most question marks next to her name on the WTA Tour. After Madrid, she’ll head off to Rome with several of the question marks turned into exclamation points — irrespective of tomorrow’s result.
“I’m looking forward for the final already — I just want to stay focused. After tomorrow I will party,” Halep laughed. “I have now the good feeling. I feel good on clay. I feel good here.
This time, unlike a fortnight weeks ago, it feels like she actually believes it herself — rather than having to convince anyone else.