Halep galloping along with victories and titles

Last Updated 22 March 2014, 15:56 IST

With light, springy footwork and a combination of defensive speed and offensive power, Simona Halep has been moving through courts and draws on the women’s tennis tour with considerable ease in recent months.

Halep sprang forward further last Monday, into the top five of the Women’s Tennis Association rankings. “It’s very special because I will be the first Romanian in history,” Halep said of reaching the No 5 ranking. “That’s amazing for me.”

The previous best by a Romanian was No 7 by Irina Spirlea in 1997. Among Romanian men, Ilie Nastase was ranked No 1 in the mid-1970s.

What is most remarkable is not Halep’s ranking itself, but her dizzying climb. Just 10 months ago, she was ranked 64th and was required to play in the qualifying draw of the WTA tournament in Rome.

Since May, Halep, 22, has won 57 matches, the most on the WTA Tour during that stretch, ahead of the 51 by the top-ranked Serena Williams. Halep’s seven titles in that period are also a tour high. The tournaments she has won have been successively more prestigious and have come on clay, grass and outdoor and indoor hardcourts in Europe, North America and Asia.At the Australian Open in January, she made her debut in the top 10 by reaching the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam for the first time.

While Halep’s career accelerates, one thing she has come to appreciate with her winning ways is her increased ability to stay put, no longer repacking and flying to the next tournament quickly after an early-round loss.

“The rhythm, now it’s different, because before, I could play just a few matches, one or two, and I had to change the place,” Halep said. “But now, I stay longer and I’m enjoying every time.”

Halep’s recently hired coach, Wim Fissette, credits her improved play to increased aggressiveness. Fissette, a Belgian who worked with Kim Clijsters during her successful comeback, said Halep told him that before her results improved, she was scared to play assertively.

“She told me she put too much pressure on herself and, therefore, she was always starting with the plan of making no mistakes, no unforced errors,” Fissette said. “The focus was too much on that, and she was too defensive. At one moment, she really told herself to be more offensive, to play more aggressive. And that’s what she did, and she gained confidence by winning matches and she became more and more aggressive.”

Third-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska, who ousted Halep in the semifinals at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells recently, had lost to Halep in the semifinals at Doha, Qatar, last month, where Halep won her biggest title to date, and Radwanska took note of her opponent’s prowess on offense and defense.

“She was playing unbelievable that day,” Radwanska said. “Well, I didn’t play bad. I really didn’t. I wasn’t even mad after the match because I was really doing everything right but just everything was coming back, and most of the time, it was for winners.”

Halep grew up in Constanta on the Black Sea and began to play when she was 4, following in her older brother’s footsteps. She found success in the junior ranks, winning the junior title at the French Open when she was 16.

Halep credits much of her success to her first childhood coach, Ene Nicusor, who, she said, taught her discipline and professionalism.

As Halep and her success continue to arrive ahead of schedule, her manager, the 1978 French Open women’s champion Virginia Ruzici, says Halep can emerge as one of the best clay-court players in an era in which few of the top contenders have shown a natural affinity for the surface.

“Being a very good, typical clay-court player with movement, perfect movement on clay, sliding, I think she has a good chance,” Ruzici said by phone from her home in Paris. “I don’t know if it’s going to happen this year, or if it is going to happen in the next two years or so, but I really think she has a good chance to really win a Grand Slam tournament.”

(Published 22 March 2014, 15:56 IST)

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