UNTIL a few weeks ago, it’s fair to say that Simona Halep was probably better known for getting a breast reduction than she was for anything she had done in tennis.
That was despite the fact the Romanian has made it as far as the quarter-finals at the Australian Open in January, had won seven WTA, six ITF and earned millions of dollars in prize money. It didn’t matter that she was one of the highest ranked players in the women’s game, having accelerated up the rankings since the beginning of 2013, when she was nestled at No.47. But the fact she is seeded third at Wimbledon reflects her current standing in the game.
This week she heads out on to the grass courts of SW19 as an Australian Open quarter-finalist and the beaten finalist at the recent French Open, where the Roland Garros victor, Maria Sharapova, credited the Romanian with providing one of her toughest ever tests. Coming from one of the most mentally resolute women in the sport, that was undoubtedly a compliment. It also gave her some of the gravitas needed to edge out talk of bosoms and get people focusing on her tennis.
But the boob job can’t be completely ignored. The decision she made as a 17-year-old to reduce her ample 34DD cleavage to a less cumbersome 34C may seem extreme to some and, judging by the reaction of many of her male followers, it was unpopular with others, but it has paid off and offers an insight into the lengths this competitor is willing to go to progress in the sport.
She is more confident, more mobile and her strokes are less restricted now that those obstacles have been reduced. If that operation was a pivotal moment in her personal and tennis development, there have been other key factors.
At this year’s Australian Open she made a hash of handling the pressure and was defeated as much by the occasion as she was by Dominika Cibulkova, losing 6-3, 6-0. Afterwards she admitted she had “big emotions and I couldn’t manage”.
Such is her intensity, her dedication and her focus. The dream had been to reach the latter stages of the grand slams; the reality had proved overwhelming. But it was an experience she learned from.
She made the decision to hire a new coach. She chose Wim Fissette, who had previously coached Australian and US Open winner Kim Clisjsters, and last year’s defeated Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki.
“She has gone from strength to strength with him,” says Judy Murray, whose GB Fed Cup team were vanquished courtesy of Hapel’s quality when the countries met up earlier this year.
“She used to be quite edgy on the big occasions but not any more. She has big belief in herself and has started to get used to the expectation and adulation from her home country. She is quiet and humble so that side of success did not come easily to her.”
It is that mental evolution that makes her tenacity in the recent Roland Garros final all the more remarkable. Up against Sharapova many would have crumbled in the face of the grunts and the gusto. The 22-year-old from Constanta forced her to fight for all three sets before eventually having to settle for second best. She sobbed under her towel in the immediate aftermath then she accepted that she simply had to work harder.
“I said I had to be happy because I played the biggest final of my career, a grand slam final. So it was an incredible result for me and I just have to be happy.”
She returned home to hundreds of fans. “They stopped the plane at the red carpet at the airport and everybody was waiting for me,” she said yesterday. “I went to them. Yeah, that was incredible. I will never forget that moment.”
If the mental resilience is important, it is merely part of a package that suggests she may trouble the higher order at many, many more grand slam events.
Coming from a sporting family, her father Stere played football to a decent level in Romania and that athleticism is something she uses to her advantage.
“She is a good athlete, has a good engine and absorbs the ball well,” says Murray.
“She stays low which is important on grass. She plays very consistently from the baseline and is much more aggressive and more confident than before. She is tough to break down. With few players on the women’s tour capable of mastering all surfaces, Hapel has already proved that whether on the hard courts, clay or grass she is someone to fear.
She won last summer’s Top Shelf ‘s-Hertogenbosch grass court event but had to retire from the same tournament last week, citing a shoulder niggle she did not want to aggravate ahead of Wimbledon. She was also, she admits, exhausted and in need of a quick recharge before taking to the All England Club turf.
“I feel OK now. I was very tired – more mentally but also physically a little bit. Then I had the contracted muscle down the shoulder but now I feel good. I had a good recovery and my phsyio has worked with me every day. Now I think I’m 100 per cent to start the tournament.
“I feel good on grass. I play good and I like it because the balls are coming fast and the game is faster than on clay or hard court.”
Before the French Open she spoke openly about how lowly she rated her chances of reaching the final, surprising herself when she did. This weekend she was just as humble about her chances of reaching a second successive major final. “Here I come with more confidence in myself but still I just want to take it match by match because it is different here. It is a different surface and it is difficult.
“All the grand slams are difficult tournaments because everyone is playing really good. Every match is tough. But I’m looking forward to going very far in this tournament and to give everything I can at the moment on court.”
If all goes to plan, she could meet Serena Williams in the semi-finals. The American is a five-times winner and the bookies’ favourite once again but Halep knows what is required.
“I have to move better, stay lower and I have to be very fast. I have to be aggressive, stay close to the baseline and open the angles because here that is the most important thing, to open the court up and make the opponent run. But I have to serve good here too. There are so many things But I feel good.
“A few years ago I was looking up the rankings on the internet and I saw I was on the fourth page. I said my dream was to be on the first page. Now I am there. I want to enjoy this moment but I want to improve more in my game and maybe be second or first.”
The attitude is right and, given how she single-mindedly opted for that breast reduction, adamant that not even her own body would get in the way of her dreams, those sitting above her in the rankings and those destined to meet in grand slam draws have something to worry about.