WTA top 10 players of the decade: No. 2 – Simona Halep

Hannah Wilks:

To celebrate the 2010s coming to an end, our tennis editors have chosen their top-10 ATP and WTA Tour players of the decade. Today we profile our no. 2 WTA player from 2010-19, Simona Halep.

2010-19 fast facts:
Highest ranking: 1 (2017-19, 64 weeks)
WTA titles: 19 (French Open 2018, Wimbledon 2019)
WTA finals: 17 (French Open 2014, 2017; Australian Open 2018)
Top-10 wins: 40

One of the younger players to have made our list of the top 10 ATP and WTA players of the decade, Simona Halep started the decade well outside the top 100 and ended it as one of the biggest names in women’s tennis.

A no. 1 junior player and girls’ French Open champion, Halep played her first Grand Slam main draws in 2010 and reached her first WTA Tour final in Fes, but her first titles would have to wait until her brilliant breakthrough year of 2013, which saw the Romanian player go 53-17 and win six titles, including Premier-level titles in New Haven and Moscow and the Tournament of Champions (the precursor to the current WTA Elite Trophy as the second-tier season-ending championship).

Halep’s star only rose in 2014 and her ranking with it, climbing as high as world no. 2 as she reached her first Grand Slam final at the French Open, battling Maria Sharapova all the way before eventually succumbing in three sets. When she beat Serena Williams in the round-robin stages of her debut WTA Finals and went on to reach the final before Williams reversed the result, it seemed like Halep was poised to dominate the WTA, with her maiden Grand Slam title simply a matter of time.

It took a little more time than anybody expected – four years in fact, years in which Halep would pick up Premier Mandatory titles in Madrid and Indian Wells and stay firmly entrenched in the top five, but struggle to translate her success to Grand Slam level. After making that first Grand Slam final at Roland Garros in 2014, Halep would only make one Grand Slam semifinal and three quarterfinals for the next two years. Critics pointed to her sometimes underwhelming serve, the relative lack of outright aggression or explosiveness in her game, but above all to her mentality, her tendency to lose her way and get sucked down into an on-court spiral of negativity, even while the pressure to become the first female Grand Slam champion from her native Romania intensified and intensified.

It all seemed to come to a head at Miami in the spring of 2017, after Halep had struggled early in the season with a knee injury. An acrimonious on-court coaching exchange during a three-set defeat to Johanna Konta between Halep and Darren Cahill led to Cahill stepping back as Halep’s coach. It was a wake-up call for Halep, who first won Cahill back as her coach, then put together a superb clay-court season, winning Madrid, reaching the final of Rome, then making her second Roland Garros final where she led Jelena Ostapenko by a set and a break with points for a double break – only to find victory ripped from her hands by the audacious shotmaking of the world no. 47 from Latvia.

Halep’s response to this cruel defeat was everything that Cahill or anyone else could have hoped in terms of resilience. By the end of the year, she was world no. 1 for the first time; the following January, she made her third Grand Slam final at the Australian Open. This time, it was Caroline Wozniacki who denied her in a grueling three-set final which followed a marathon battle with Angelique Kerber in the previous round, but nobody could fault a level of effort which landed her in hospital. And at the French Open in May, it all came together again: Wins over Kerber, 2016 champion Garbine Muguruza and, finally, coming back from a set and a break down against an inspired Sloane Stephens to finally lift that maiden Grand Slam trophy.

A back injury brought Halep’s triumphant 2018 season to a premature end, and she had the misfortune of having to face Serena Williams in the round of 16 at the Australian Open, but once again adversity would only be the precursor to a greater triumph: After being blasted off the court by Amanda Anisimova in the quarterfinals of the French Open, Halep bounced back to compile a flawless Wimbledon campaign, coming through a draw which included Victoria Azarenka, Elina Svitolina and Williams herself in the final to win her second major title.

Halep ends the decade ranked world no. 4, but having spent 64 weeks as the world no. 1 – just the tenth woman since the advent of the computerized ranking to exceed 60 weeks in the top spot – and having finished two seasons as the world no. 1. She has qualified for the WTA Finals for six straight years, made the semifinals or better of every major and, with her triumphs at the French Open in 2018 and Wimbledon in 2019, become the biggest sports star in Romania, with over 30,000 people turning out to celebrate her victory at the All-England Club this past summer. A virtual fixture in the top five for the past six years, nobody – nobody – has been a more consistent presence at the top of the women’s game for so much of the decade; and at 28, there’s only more to come from Simona Halep.