Tom Humberstone

Blog

Simona Halep

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It's a strange quirk of following sports that you can find yourself becoming personally invested in the success of an athlete or team that you've never met. But there I was, breathing a sigh of relief and cheering as Simona Halep won match point in last week's French Open final.

The alchemy that goes into discovering a favourite tennis player is hard to pin down. Equal parts their style of game, personality on and off the court, political allegiances, willingness to speak out and an inscrutable algorithm that balances the heart-breaking losses against gritty, hard-fought victories.

Halep had fast become one of my favourite tennis players to watch for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, I've always been a fan of the aggressive counter-puncher. Shorter than most big servers, Halep rarely gets a free point - instead she relies on her speed and dogged determination to chase down every ball. She constructs clever points, forcing her opponent to hit awkward balls or drawing them out of position. 

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But if I'm honest with myself, it's also when her game-plan breaks down that I find myself endeared to her. I relate to Halep when a point goes awry and she whacks herself over the head with her racquet, or when she throws the towel over her head at the change of ends - trying to shut the world out as she mentally regroups. The solitary battle of wills on a tennis court can be gruelling. Cumulative scars from previous losses add up. Attempting to forget the last point and reset is easier said than done. Most players find themselves battling their inner demons as much as they battle their opponent. And Halep has lost this battle more than once. I can relate to that.

Watch any of the press conferences Halep gives after a big loss and tell me she isn't your favourite tennis player too. A notoriously shy and introverted player, Halep is bracingly open and honest during those raw moments after a match - treating the assembled reporters like a therapy group.

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Halep has fought hard to temper her emotions on the court. Or at least acknowledge, embrace and use them. It's a redemptive journey that offers hope to anyone who battles with their confidence. Her consistency over the past two years has led to her claiming the world number one spot - an achievement that is, refreshingly, clearly important to Halep - but as such, the inevitable questions surrounding her lack of a Grand Slam cast doubt on the legitimacy of her position.

Those who weren't paying attention these past couple of years continued to suggest Halep was a player who crumbled easily - who choked. Anyone who watched her first three Grand Slam final matches would be hard-pressed to level that accusation at her but regardless, the same tired summaries of her character persisted. This all just made me love her even more. A world number one and an misunderstood underdog all at once. 

Sadly, unlike another favourite counter-puncher with emotional demons - Andy Murray - Halep is firmly apolitical. She has refrained from discussing the debate over equal pay for female tennis players and has yet to openly distance herself from veteran Romanian tennis players Ilie Nastase and Ion Tiriac - both of whom have made racists and sexist comments recently. I don't think this is a simple issue though. Halep has benefited from Nastase and Tiriac's support within the Romanian tennis community and I think we need to have a more nuanced understanding of the institutional support some tennis players have behind them. It's easier for some players to speak out than others.

Her match-up in the final - against Sloane Stephens, another favourite player to watch and who generously demonstrated to Halep how to proudly display her trophy in one of the sweetest moments of the tournament - was tricky. Stephens was 6-0 in finals and playing better than she had in her run to her first Grand Slam at last year's US Open. But Halep persevered from a set and a break down (in direct contrast to her devastating loss against Ostapenko the year before), at once winning the Grand Slam that was most important to her and silencing her critics. It was glorious. 

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So I drew this illustration.

WTA reporter Courtney Nguyen wrote a great piece about Halep embracing her demons for the French Open win which can be read here. She also conducted a short 10 min interview with Halep which is definitely worth a listen (here).