WTA Finals Singapore 2017

WTA Finals: Renewed tenacity key in Simona Halep's quest for first Grand Slam

Simona Halep celebrates after winning against Caroline Garcia.
Simona Halep celebrates after winning against Caroline Garcia.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Halep's coach declares her new post-Madrid resolve is vital in pursuit of a first Major title

In the roller-coaster season that Simona Halep has had this year, there have been many critics calling her a world No. 1 desperately devoid of mental strength.

Yet, for someone who arguably has the best vantage point, coach Darren Cahill has instead seen only fortitude and fight.

In fact, to him, a lesser Halep would have caved under the weight of her own hopes and outsiders' expectations, after being handed some of the toughest losses of her career so far this year.

That included three near-misses in as many months to capture the world's top ranking, starting with a heartbreaking loss - after taking the first set - to Jelena Ostapenko in the French Open final. It was the second time Halep, still in search of a maiden Grand Slam title, had fallen in the final hurdle of a Major.

The 26-year-old Romanian faltered twice more, in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon (to Johanna Konta) and then in the Cincinnati Open final last month (to Garbine Muguruza).

"Previously, after having one or two chances and missing them, I think she might have dug a hole for herself and (it would have) been tough to get out of that hole," Cahill told The Straits Times last week at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.

"But she hasn't done that. She's kept fighting, she's kept training, kept believing, kept pushing. With that, she eventually got there."

MAKING SIGNIFICANT PROGRESS

She's kept fighting, she's kept training, kept believing, kept pushing. With that, she eventually got there.''

DARREN CAHILL, Simona Halep's coach, acknowledging Simona Halep's new attitude.

In impressive fashion, too.

En route to the China Open final that made her the first Romanian to earn the coveted No. 1 ranking, Halep beat Maria Sharapova in straight sets in the round of 16, the first time in eight meetings that she has found an edge over the Russian.

She then defeated Ostapenko in the semi-final, another straight-sets victory.

It is a long way from the meltdown the tennis world saw at the Miami Open in March, when Halep was taken to a third set by Konta, losing the match despite dominating it.

After a well-publicised on-court coaching exchange during that match, Cahill temporarily stopped coaching Halep, unhappy with the negativity she had displayed.

Halep admitted that the split came as a shock to her system. But she appeared to have found her footing again within a month, celebrating a reunion with her Australian coach by winning the Madrid Open.

She said after that title that she was "a new person, who doesn't give up any more", that she was "proud" to be "able to change this in such a short time".

But Cahill, who has coached Halep since January 2016, says she has had this strength in her for a while now. Said the 52-year-old: "Simona has really grown up a lot in the last couple of years. Had she not, I don't think she'd be in this position where she is right now.

"The words that we (coaches) say, or what we preach - they're easy. Anybody can give those. Ultimately, the player has to believe it, buy into it, and go out onto the court and execute it."

The perennial question is when Halep can win a Grand Slam title. But the task, for Cahill and his protege, is less about pursuing a trophy, and more about evolution.

As far as he is concerned, lifting a Grand Slam title is very doable.

"Just little things," he said. "We're talking just two to three per cent in the big moments - just step out, take it to your opponent, put the result on your racket.

"My job as a coach is to make sure, regardless of her ranking, to continue to push her, to never be comfortable... or keep it as it is.

"It's about treating each day as an opportunity to get better, continuing to work as hard as you can, and keeping it simple."

 

In trying to help Halep improve all the time - and in the process hopefully lift a first Grand Slam - the duo are taking a leaf out of the book of someone who has succeeded 16 times so far: Spaniard Rafael Nadal.

Said Cahill: "The times that he got to No. 1 in the world, even right now, he's looking to evolve. He's not happy just being No. 1 - he wants to be a better player.

"We're taking a lot of what we've seen from him and doing that with Simona.

"She just needs to fight for it, keep putting herself in those positions, and eventually, I think she'll get there."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2017, with the headline 'Renewed tenacity key in quest for 1st slam'. Print Edition | Subscribe