Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 9 December 2019

Simona Halep's new 'chilled' approach allowed her to blast away Serena Williams in Wimbledon final

The Romanian took less than an hour to dispatch the 23-time grand slam winner in the Wimbledon final on Saturday

Simona Halep does not like to watch grand slam finals she has not been part of. She finds them “hard” to digest. But she knew enough about Serena Williams’ two most recent final defeats at the majors – last year at the US Open to Naomi Osaka and at Wimbledon to Angelique Kerber – to believe she could beat the American at the All England Club on Saturday.

Despite her 1-9 head-to-head record against Williams heading into the final, Halep was unshakable in her 6-2, 6-2 triumph over the 23-time grand slam champion that made her the first Romanian to win a Wimbledon singles title.

“The final of a grand slam is a little bit too hard to watch, because you really want to be there, and it’s better to stay away and to enjoy your life,” Halep told a small group of reporters after her victory.

“I didn’t watch [Serena’s two final losses] because I don’t really like to watch those moments. But I thought that if those players were able to win against her in a final then I have a chance. So that’s why I was very confident today.”

The keyword is confidence. Halep, who had suffered plenty of heartbreak before clinching her first grand slam at last year's French Open, has portrayed an intriguing combination of intensity on court and relaxed demeanour off it at Wimbledon. Her coach, Daniel Dobre, is particularly proud of that.

“What she did very good is that she believed in the game and took each match like a practice, like, ‘Let’s see how good I can play?’ So we adjusted some things, she played drop shots, she played slices, she served very good, and at the end this win is something like a reward,” Dobre said.

Indeed Halep is reaping the rewards from the work that was first sewn two-and-a-half years ago. At the 2017 Miami Open, Halep lost a quarter-final to Johanna Konta in three sets from a winning position. During a now-famous on-court visit from her then coach Darren Cahill, Halep was overcome by negativity and wouldn’t follow the advice of her Australian mentor to snap out of it. Cahill split with Halep afterwards and it wasn’t until she vowed to work on her mental conditioning that they reunited a few weeks later. A year later Halep clinched her maiden grand slam at Roland Garros. She has now added a second major to her tally, despite parting ways with Cahill last season.

“I accepted that I need help in that direction, mentally help. And I accepted that I am like that and I don’t have to make big changes, just to understand what’s going wrong during those moments. And once I accepted and once I understood, I could work on them, and that’s why I changed some things,” explained Halep.

Cahill, who is also a tennis commentator, remains a close friend and watched Halep's matches at Wimbledon. Their split came as a huge surprise to Halep, as it happened following her best year on the WTA Tour. He has since hinted that he would be willing to return to Team Simona once he is ready to get back on the road for a gruelling 10-month season. “I hope [he comes back]. Let’s hope this result can make him come back,” Halep said with a grin on her face.

“I felt a little bit lost when he told me that we’re going to split but I was also confident that if I put in practice what he told me during the three, four years we were together, I have a better chance to be good on court.

“We split, but we’re still talking and he’s kind of my friend and he’s by my side all the time, he came to watch the matches. He still gives me advice, but friendly advice.”

Simona Halep poses with the championship trophy on Centre Court after her victory over Serena Williams at the Wimbledon final on Saturday. EPA
Simona Halep poses with the championship trophy on Centre Court after her victory over Serena Williams at the Wimbledon final on Saturday. EPA

Halep’s run to the Wimbledon title came on the heels of a quarter-final exit during her French Open defence at the hands of 17-year-old American Amanda Anisimova last month.

Despite a previous semi-final appearance at the All England Club in 2014, Wimbledon was never really a place that Halep expected to flourish at, her toughest surface, she says. There are no grass courts in Romania, and it wasn’t until she was 17 that she played a match on the surface.

Dobre, however, always knew she could excel on grass.

“Yes for sure [I believed her game was ready to win Wimbledon]. Because I saw her playing on fast courts, indoors, and elsewhere, and for me, her game is more for grass than for clay,” said Halep's fellow Romanian.

“Because she can stay down, her game is a little flatter, she can serve with slice, she’s moving very good, passing very good. In my opinion it’s more difficult for her to win Roland Garros than here. That’s my opinion - I told her that five years ago. And this year she showed it.”

Since the start of the year, Halep has taken a more “chilled” approach to tennis. That has been evident at the All England Club, with the former world No 1 looking relaxed, smiling and cracking jokes and engaging in light-hearted banter with journalists.

So what’s the secret to this newfound sense of calm?

Halep took an extended break during her off-season and confessed that she didn’t work as hard as she typically would have to prepare for a new campaign. She allowed herself to let loose after being one of the most consistent players on the women’s tour (her residency in the top-10 since January 2014 is the longest active top-10 streak on the WTA circuit).

“I was enjoying life, I’ve been out, I’ve been with friends, on holidays, I switched off the tennis life for about two months because I felt exhausted. I was injured actually first, so it was a good decision at that time,” Halep said.

Her resurgence mirrors that of Ashleigh Barty, who won the French Open three years after taking a 12-month hiatus to, among other things, play cricket. The benefits of taking a break – long or short – from the unforgiving grind of pro tennis is becoming ever more apparent for elite-level players.

Halep now has her heart set on winning a medal for Romania next year at the Tokyo Olympics, where she hopes to compete in both singles and mixed doubles alongside countryman Horia Tecau.

“I want a gold, not gold, any medal in Olympics to fulfil everything I have done in tennis,” she said. “I always loved to play for my country, all the Fed Cup matches. The disappointment from this year [in Fed Cup] really hurt me. So if I will be able to play so well to get a medal would be a dream.”

Updated: July 15, 2019 08:50 AM

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