Tennis: Mental toughness sets the elite apart

Simona Halep's feat of clay this season has yielded a semi-final appearance and three finals, including victory in Madrid and defeat at the French Open. The Romanian is the only player to have qualified for all four editions of the WTA Finals in Sing
Simona Halep's feat of clay this season has yielded a semi-final appearance and three finals, including victory in Madrid and defeat at the French Open. The Romanian is the only player to have qualified for all four editions of the WTA Finals in Singapore.PHOTO: REUTERS

Consistency has been the hallmark of both world No. 1 Halep and Wozniacki's seasons

Semi-finals in Stuttgart, a title in Madrid, final in Rome and the French Open final.

World No. 1 Simona Halep's results at those four tournaments over seven weeks from April to June this year reflect the consistency of her game, despite constant travelling and little to no time between events.

The Romanian's steadiness this term has earned her a berth at the season-ending BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global for the fourth year in a row.

Halep is the only singles player to feature in all editions of the US$7 million (S$9.5 million) event in Singapore, which is contested by the world's top-eight singles players and doubles teams.

Speaking to The Straits Times in China at the Wuhan Open last month, the 26-year-old said: "I think consistency matches my personality and my game, so I'm happy and proud that I can be in Singapore again.

"It shows that I have been playing well during the years - I'm not a big hitter so (consistency) has helped me get there."

Over the years, Halep, who has won 15 WTA titles and almost US$20 million in prize money, has ascended the rankings steadily.

HAVE EYES ONLY ON THE PRIZE

You have to be mentally strong, you have to be prepared no matter which part of the world you are... It can wear you down.

DARREN CAHILL, Simona Halep's coach, gives an insight into the mind of a top-level tennis player, in this case, the women's world No. 1.

After rising 36 places - from 47th to 11th - in 2013, she has continued her climb to the top, eventually reaching the peak two weeks ago.

Halep's coach Darren Cahill said the difficulty of making such deep runs in multiple tournaments should not be underestimated.

He cited the mental and physical challenges like coping with constantly being in different time zones, training and competing while jet-lagged and spending extended periods of time away from home.

Speaking to ST in Singapore this week, the Australian said the non-stop travel was a key reason why the game is "one of the hardest sports in the world to excel and be elite at".

Pointing out that other sports are played in the same country - American football in the US for instance, Cahill believes it takes unique internal resilience to cope with the demands of professional tennis.

"You have to be mentally strong, you have to be prepared no matter which part of the world you are," he said. "Every morning, out of your hotel bed, different hotels, be prepared to work hard and find ways to improve.

"So I have great respect for all the players trying to do well, but more so the top 10 who week in, week out put themselves on the line. It can wear you down."

The Oct 22-29 WTA Finals Singapore will be Halep's 18th tournament of the season, and the 23rd for Caroline Wozniacki.

The Danish former world No. 1, who leads the Tour with the most number of matches won (56), is returning to the Singapore Indoor Stadium after failing to qualify for the last two editions.

The 27-year-old had dropped to world No. 74 last year, but is now ranked sixth after a markedly consistent campaign.

She reached a season-high seven finals in 2017 and won last month's Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo. It also maintained her streak of winning at least one title every year since 2008.

"To go far week in and week out is very difficult because throughout the tournament, whether it's first round or second, or quarter-finals, you'll play players that have big power in their game," she said.

"On any given day, they can beat anyone. I think that makes it harder to be playing consistently deep in any tournament."

Despite the relentless grind, neither she nor Halep is targeting anything less than a spot in the singles final on Oct 29, and possibly another trophy to add to their collection.

•Additional reporting by May Chen

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2017, with the headline 'Mental toughness sets the elite apart'. Print Edition | Subscribe