Will Simona Halep Be Crowned the Queen of Clay in Paris Again?

Simona Halep prepares for the 2020 French Open

Fifty years on from the launch of the Women’s Tennis Association, it seems fitting that women’s tennis, at least at the elite level, is currently more competitive than the men’s game. While it is relatively easy to predict a winner of the French Open men’s singles title – one of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem will almost certainly leave Paris with the title in tow – it is far more difficult to identify a potential winner in the women’s singles.

That is perhaps unsurprising. In this most disrupted of years, most players have found it difficult to maintain their form and consistency, as illustrated by the raft of surprising results in recent weeks, not least Nadal’s quarterfinal loss in Rome. The exception to that rule has been Novak Djokovic. The Serbian did see his US Open campaign, a tournament he looked certain to win, come to an end in the fourth round as he was defaulted for hitting a lineswoman in the throat with a ball fired in anger.

But he is yet to actually lose a match, having won every other event he has entered, with the world #1 having claimed titles at the ATP Cup and in Melbourne, Dubai, ‘Cincinnati’ and Rome. But on the WTA Tour, one player has been quietly putting together a season that almost rivals Djokovic’s for consistency. Enter Simona Halep. The Romanian has been in superb form, winning her last 14 matches either side of the pandemic-enforced break.

In Prague, her first tournament since the restart, she took a little time to readjust to the demands of competitive tennis, losing sets to Polona Hercog and Barbora Krejcikova in her opening two matches. Thereafter, however, she was imperious, sweeping past Magdalena Frech for the loss of only two games, before beating her compatriot Irina-Camelia Begu in straight sets in the last four and repeating the feat to beat Elise Mertens comfortably in the final.
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If anything, her form improved further in Rome last week. After a first-round bye, Halep defeated Italy’s Jasmine Paolini in straight sets and then Dayana Yastremska, who has looked so impressive at times this year, also without the loss of a set. That saw her into the quarterfinals and from then on, Halep was relentless in her excellence. She did, admittedly, benefit from two retirements, with Yulia Putintseva in the quarterfinals and Karolina Pliskova in the final both forced to retire hurt.

But Halep proved her mettle in the semifinals against Garbine Muguruza. Halep made the better start and looked to be coasting towards victory, only for the Spaniard came from a set and a break down to take the match the distance. But Halep was not to be denied, eventually running her opponent into the ground to win 6-3 4-6 6-4. That match, and indeed her title-winning efforts in Prague and Rome generally, served as reminders of how perfectly suited to clay Halep’s game is.

Because she stands only 5 ft 6 in tall, she does not have the most powerful serve or groundstrokes, especially in this era which is increasingly dominated by power-hitters. It makes her triumph at Wimbledon last season that much more impressive. But on clay, the slower surface allows her to show just how effective her inimitable court coverage can be. Time and time again, Halep has demonstrated no woman can match her speed and agility on a tennis court.

What is really encouraging for Halep, in addition to her outstanding current form and the complete compatibility of her game with clay, is the fact that she has performed exceptionally well at the French Open in the past. It was the scene of her Major breakthrough, when she made the final in 2014 and took the eventual winner, Maria Sharapova, to three sets, before the Russian eventually won 6-4 6-7 6–4 to claim the last of her five Grand Slam titles.

Then, after a succession of near-misses at the Majors, culminating in the literally agonising loss to Caroline Wozniacki in the 2018 Australian Open final, after which she was hospitalised for heat exhaustion and dehydration, Halep finally got over the line in a Major at the French Open in 2018, rallying from a set down to beat Sloane Stephens 3-6 6-4 6-1. Since then, Halep has, for the most part, played like a player liberated from the pressure of expectation.
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That expectation had been weighing on Halep since the very start of her career. Although it is often overlooked, Halep has genuine rock-star status, which, if it does not rival the adulation of Djokovic in Serbia, at least comes close. After all, Romania has a fairly illustrious tennis history, with Ilie Nastase and Virginia Ruzici both winnings Majors in the 1970’s and a relatively steady stream of talent having followed that pair, albeit without another Grand Slam triumph.

With Halep initially struggling to join that most exclusive of clubs, it appeared that her nation’s obsession with her performances on court was too heavy a burden to bear. Now, however, having won two Majors in successive years, she seems to genuinely relish her elite status. But there is also another factor to consider when assessing Halep’s chances in Paris over the next fortnight, which is her decision not to travel to New York for the US Open.

Nadal, and many other clay-court specialists, made exactly the same choice and it will be fascinating to see whether a significant gap emerges between those who competed in New York and those who did not. The players who did not travel to the US will have the potentially considerable advantage of being better rested than their rivals who did compete in New York. They may also have benefitted from the chance to focus exclusively on preparing for the clay-court swing.

Never before have two Majors been played so close together this late in the year and it remains unclear whether those who excelled in New York, most notably Thiem, will be able to raise themselves to compete at their best at another Major so soon afterwards. That said, it is worth noting that at the Italian Open, in the men’s draw at least, players who had been in New York, broadly outperformed players who had stayed in Europe, with all four semifinalists having featured at the US Open.

Regardless, one suspects that Halep will have no regrets about her decision. Given her outstanding form coming into the tournament and the apparent ease with which she wears her status as a Major champion, she is rightly regarded as the favourite to win the women’s singles title at Roland Garros. If Halep does so, she will still find herself in the lengthy shadow of the great Nadal as all clay-courters are. But she will also surely deserve to be acclaimed as the reigning Queen of Clay.

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