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Simona Halep Is Back: Can She Be One Of The WTA’s Best Again?

Simona Halep National Bank Open

Simona Halep’s nightmare is finally over. Having tested positive for the banned substance roxadustat at the 2022 US Open, she was initially banned from professional tennis until October 2026. However, the Court of Arbitration for Sport drastically reduced Halep’s original ban to nine months on appeal. That means the two-time Grand Slam champion can return to the WTA Tour immediately.

Having a player of Halep’s pedigree back playing is very exciting for tennis. Yet, returning to professional sport after 18 months away is not easy. This article considers where Halep was before her ban, whether the Romanian’s style can still compete with the best in the women’s game, and what realistic expectations are for her in 2024.

Can Simona Halep Be One Of The WTA’s Best Again?

Where Halep Was Before Her Ban

Halep had an extraordinarily consistent period at the top of women’s tennis. From 2014 to 2020, she ended every season ranked inside the Top 4, including being the year-end No. 1 in 2017 and 2018. The Romanian won two Grand Slam titles and eight WTA 1000 titles during those years.

The 32-year-old finally endured a slump in 2021. A calf injury that kept her out of the French Open and Wimbledon played a role in this, but Halep also struggled before and after that problem. She did not win any WTA titles during the 2021 season and ended the year ranked at No. 20.

2022 was a better year for Halep, until her suspension. She reached the Wimbledon semifinal and won her first WTA 1000 title in over two years at the Canadian Open, vaulting her back inside the Top 10. However, the Romanian did endure early exits at the Australian Open, French Open, and US Open.

Overall, Halep’s 2022 level was creeping closer to that of her seven-year run from 2014-2020, but there were signs that she was past her prime, and that challenging consistently at big tournaments could be difficult. Now that she is 18 months older, that challenge is only going to be tougher.

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Can The Romanian’s Style Still Compete With The Best?

Halep was known for her gritty style of play when she first came onto the WTA Tour. Her game was based almost entirely on consistency and excellent movement. In 2014, she changed that by developing powerful and penetrating groundstrokes. Combined with her athleticism, this made the Romanian a formidable force on tour.

Her ability to both defend and attack is crucial in the modern women’s game. None of the players at the very top of the WTA Tour are players who just defend well. World No. 1 Iga Swiatek and US Open champion Coco Gauff combine attack and defence in a way that is quite reminiscent of Halep at her best. Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka relies slightly more on her power but still moves very well. Elena Rybakina is the one player at the top who compensates for slightly weaker movement with huge serving and hitting. That said, all the top players strike the ball impressively.

That means Halep’s style from the baseline still fits the women’s game well. Her biggest issue is the serve, which has always been the 2018 French Open champion’s main weakness. Players on the WTA Tour have gotten even better in recent years at attacking their opponent’s serve. In 2021 and 2022, that weakness in Halep’s game was starting to become more obvious.

The other issue for Halep is whether she has lost any of her athleticism. She will undoubtedly still be a great mover, but at the age of 32, and after being away from the tour for 18 months, she could be a little slower than before. That might be detrimental to her chances of getting back to the very top, unless she can adapt her game to be even more aggressive.

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What Are Realistic Expectations For Halep in 2024?

Halep joins a list of players who are back competing on the WTA Tour after a long time away in 2024. Naomi Osaka and Angelique Kerber are back from maternity leave, Emma Raducanu after a long injury, and Amanda Anisimova and Anastasija Sevastova returned from hiatuses. Hence, players reinstating themselves is already a major theme in women’s tennis in 2024.

However, there is an added dimension to Halep’s return. Returning from injuries and hiatuses is common, while many positive role models have normalized playing after maternity leave. The Romanian has gone through an incredibly stressful ordeal. It seemed like her career might be over, with the media scrutiny surrounding the story being an obvious weight on her shoulders during the last 18 months. That means it might be even harder for Halep to recover mentally on her comeback to the WTA Tour.

Yet, there is a positive for the 24-time WTA title winner. It can be tough for players to adjust physically after being injured or on maternity leave. Halep does not have this issue. The 32-year-old was fit to play in the last 18 months; she just was not allowed to. Although some adaptation to professional matches will undoubtedly be needed, the training she has been able to do means Halep should not be as hindered as some who return after a long period of time.

Overall, fans should not expect Halep to return to the very top of the WTA Tour in 2024. She needs match practice and a strong mentality to put the past 18 months behind her. Halep’s goal this season should be to compete well and try to get as many wins as possible. If she can do that successfully, higher expectations could be possible for 2025.

Main Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

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