Everything I’ve done so far was only for tennis. Nothing else mattered. That’s why it might have been too much. That’s why I suffered, “says Simona Halep on a midnight afternoon in Bucharest. We are sitting in a corner of a restaurant where the clink of cutlery is a subtle backdrop to the raw immediacy of a rare World Number 1 interview.
Outside there is snow on the ground, but only heat from Halep. Beyond her burning intensity, she smiles with relief. “Now there is no more pressure. I feel lighter. I feel better. I would not have been so relaxed if I had not won the French Open. A big weight falls from my shoulders. “
The 27-year-old has so far avoided opening up, since, apart from her shy and private nature, she was consumed by a fixation that was erased last summer in Paris with her first Grand Slam. Halep can now give insight into her life in Bucharest.
We meet at 9 in the morning and she chats happily while we are driven to a courtyard on the outskirts of the city. I watch their practice for the Australian Open, which starts next week in the contrasting furnace of Melbourne, where Halep suffered so much last year. On the way to lunch, after Halep had been playing hard for two hours, she enjoys the simple fact that she spent her first Christmas at home for ten years.
I gave myself 100%, so many years, “says Halep. “Now I have won a Grand Slam and start enjoying life more. I like to go out, make friends. I’m more open Before I won the French, I was very focused. “
Halep now seems to be the opposite of a one-dimensional obsession. Instead, reflecting on the commitment she needs to achieve her goals, she reflects exponentially on physical traumas, psychological barriers, the role of her former coach Darren Cahill, and the sweetness of victory.
Cahill will spend most of the year with his family in Australia, so Halep is currently without a coach. This unusual situation adds to the fascination of being an even better player after a back injury and exhaustion after her momentous year in 2018.
“I have the experience and that’s why I decided to be alone for four months without a coach. I want to feel relaxed. Last year in Romania, I had a lot of pressure from the people around me because everyone was talking about the Grand Slam title. It’s just a sport, but for me it was all. That’s why I suffered a bit. “
Halep’s psychological resolve was tested, but at last year’s Australian Open she underwent a physical incitement, meaning she was hospitalized after her threefold defeat in the final against Caroline Wozniacki. The entire tournament had been an ordeal. “I’ve never played such a tough tournament and I hope I do not have to do it again,” she says. “It was a disaster, my mother was scared, and she said I can never do that again because it was too much, it was a warning.”
She had twisted her ankle in the first round, but had only to try to win the match and the next, before she faced Lauren Davis. They played three hours and 45 minutes in scorching heat and cost Davis some of their toenails before Halep won 15-13 in the final set. “That was incredible,” says Halep. “She played so well and had three match points. But I think I had more desire to win. This match meant a lot because I was mentally strong. I could stay in the square for so many hours. “
Halep survived another epic in the semifinals, saving two match points and beating Angelique Kerber 9-7 in the third set, “making it feel like every point was 20 rallies because she’s a very big fighter. I was proud of this tournament. I was not even upset after losing to Caroline in the final. I gave everything. But in the end there was no energy left.
“After the final we were around 22 clock with the press and they brought me to the doping control. I left at 2 am because I could not make a urine sample because I was dehydrated. They took my blood. At the hotel I started to shiver and they took me to the hospital. My mother was worried and said that if she were in my place, she would stop and simply enjoy life. It was really bad for three months. I was exhausted and could not fully recover. But I’m proud to have played at my limit. “
Just over four months later, in Paris, she was mentally and not only physically tested. A fourth consecutive defeat in a big final would have been devastating – especially as Halep had lost the French Open the previous year when they were 3-0 in the final against Jelena Ostapenko. “I have the courage to say that I lost the final,” she says. “She ended up winning because she was great and when you’re young, you just play. I lost it because I could not handle the emotions. For the next three months, I can not use the word “depressed” because it’s too much, but I’ve been sad for a long time. “
In the French Open final of 2018 Halep was a set and 2: 0 for Sloane Stephens. “I did not expect her to play so well on clay, so I thought everything would be lost again,” she says. “I said I have to try something, so I was more aggressive. I went online three times in a game, which I never do. I won the game and I was confident because I had thought of the year before when I took the lead and lost it. I really believed then. “
Halep’s face lights up as she remembers how 20 years of grinding had ultimately given her the ultimate happiness she craved in court. “Everything I had dreamed of was real at the moment. All the people I love were there, and when I picked up the trophy and played the national song, this was the best moment I ever had. I cried because it was huge. Maybe it’s my best moment as an athlete. But let’s see. Maybe the future will give me more. “
This future will be intrigued by Halep’s decision not to replace Cahill immediately. Halep explains how much he helped her overcome it and says her personal challenge is shared by many Romanians. “The people here do not believe much in themselves. We are very talented, but we have no confidence. I was lucky. Darren is Australian and totally different. He urged me to be positive. I have changed a lot. “
Cahill took drastic action in March 2017 when, after losing to Johanna Konta in Miami, he quit because Halep was too negative. “I was shocked,” says Halep. “Darren was really angry. He said if I do not want to change then I do not want to be the best. After a few days, I started to work with a psychologist. This lady [Alexis Castorri] helped me understand myself and work on my weaknesses. Darren was really proud and we worked together again because he really thought I wanted to be the best. “
Can she succeed without a coach? “No, I have to find a coach. At this level, it is impossible to go alone. “Are you and Cahill reunited? “I do not know, I can say, I hope so, because he’s a great person and that’s the most important thing.”
Halep is as brave as she is honest, and when she went into everything she had given up for tennis, she explains how she decided on a breast reduction when she was 18 years old. Was she scared? “No,” she says. “My family was scared. I was not afraid because I knew I had to do it for tennis. My dream was to be the best. So I laughed as I went to the doctor. After that I was much lighter and all my back problems were gone. So it was the best decision. I was 100% committed and did everything for tennis. “
Her rise is remarkable because Halep’s character may not have been a typical female athlete apart from her Romanian background, which gives her few advantages. “Sometimes I cried that I did not want to go out because I was too shy,” she says. “I was very introverted. I am still introverted. “
Halep smiles when I say that she was confident and insightful in this interview. “I am open now. I have improved a lot and can be more natural. “
She has started to support young Romanian players hoping to make it onto the professional chain. “I got a lot from tennis, so it’s good to help others because it’s very difficult. Many talented children lose out because they have no money. Tennis is an expensive sport in Romania. “
Halep also supports a girl ice hockey team for girls. “I pay for everything you need – equipment, coaches and some tournaments outside of Romania. They started beating the boys, so it’s good. Sometimes I go to the energy and get motivated. “
She is also motivated by her own “new goals”. A new way. Of course I do not like some players who have won 10 or even 20 Grand Slams. But getting out of nowhere and becoming the best of Constanta [her hometown] is quite big for a Romanian and for me as a person.
“Now I would like to be better in the Fed Cup, dreaming of the title and the Olympics in 2020. I also want to win a Grand Slam again to finish the # 1. But I will not press myself. I will have tennis for a few more years and improve myself in some other way. In 10 years I would like to have three children, a nice family and no tennis – knowing that I gave everything. “