Simona Halep’s rise to the WTA world No. 1 ranking (March 2018) has been a long journey that saw the Romanian constantly improve her game as she climbed her way up the rankings. The long road to the top is no easy mission considering the amount of hard work, commitment and mental toughness it takes to achieve those heights. As a result of her continuous efforts and determination, Halep has had a consistent and steady climb over the past few years. She first broke into the world’s top 50 at the end of 2011. Later, in August 2013, she broke into the top 20 before she cracked the top 10 in January 2014. She then went on to capture the No. 1 spot in October 2017 and held that position until her loss to Caroline Wozniacki in the final of the 2018 Australian Open.
However, Halep regained the world No. 1 ranking in February 2018. For anyone following her for the past six years, there are several key aspects in her game that have improved significantly over time and brought her where she is today.#1 - Fitness and movement
For someone who is only 5-foot-6, Halep does an excellent job covering the court both laterally as well as up and back, making the opponent feel like there is no weaker side. Being one of the smaller players on the tour, she competes against opponents who surpass her in size and power, but what she lacks in size she compensates with speed and overall athleticism. She is fit, flexible, fast and able to easily handle extended powerful rallies. She gets to most balls in good balance and her recovery skills are efficient as well. She is able to play both defense and offense solidly and has an answer to almost every question her opponents send across the net.#2 - Placement and ability to open up the court
Halep plays an intelligent game where she keeps the opponent on the run, pulling them out of their comfort zone. She has excellent shot placement, maximizing her strengths by using deep and wide shots to move her opponent, open up the court and finish the point inside the baseline. Although she has a solid backhand, she covers over 60 percent of the baseline with the forehand and tends to finish points with it. #3 - Changing the direction of the ball
Although changing the direction of the ball is the cause of many unforced errors, Halep is one of those players who makes it look so easy. She can change from crosscourt to down the line and vice versa so easily and accurately that many of her opponents are wrong-footed and easily deceived. Because she is such an excellent mover, she gets to the ball on balance, which increases her percentage of success when changing the direction of the ball.#4 - Variety
Halep has good shot versatility, which enables her to build points and adjust her game plan according to the opponent. She mixes up her groundstrokes, especially on the forehand side where she draws the opponent off the court either deep or wide, but she can easily drive the ball for a winner as well. Her backhand is consistent and surprises opponents with short cross angles or winners. Halep uses effective slice on both forehand and backhand, especially when running wide on defense, and she is not hesitant to come in to the net and finish with a volley when the balls are short. She has a well-rounded set of tools which allow her to customize her patterns depending on the opponent.#5 - Turning defense into offense
Although Halep is an effective counterpuncher with an excellent defense, she has become more and more aggressive over the years. Being such a solid athlete, she is able to retrieve and respond with high quality shots from impossible positions, such as far wide or deep behind the baseline to neutralize the point or put the opponent on the defense. She then works her way up close to or inside the baseline to control and dictate the points. The mindset and confidence of staying closer to the baseline and trying to dictate the points has been a huge addition to her game in the past year or so, making her much more aggressive.#6 - The use of an open stance backhand
While the open stance is very common on the forehand side, we’re seeing it used more and more on the backhand side as well. With the speed of the game constantly increasing, players are benefiting from the open stance, as they are able to disguise their shots as well as shorten the recovery distance and time. The open stance backhand has been an important addition to Halep’s game.#7 - Mental toughness
The last but most important piece of the puzzle in Halep’s game has been the mental aspect. Halep’s biggest and most challenging fight has been against herself and the habit of allowing her emotions to negatively impact her performance. Nerves have hampered her success in numerous key matches, including each of her two Roland Garros finals against Maria Sharapova in 2014 and against Jelena Ostapenko in 2017, as well as the 2017 Wimbledon quarterfinal loss to Johanna Konta, to name a few. These losses have been rough lessons for Halep to learn, but in recent months we have seen a significant improvement in the way she handles the pressure of big matches. At the 2018 Australian Open tournament, she showed a mature approach that saw her displaying a more positive attitude in terms of composure, getting over unforced errors, fighting for every point regardless of the score, and simply having a “leaving it all out” attitude as she battled through the long matches. She saved three match points against American player Lauren Davis and managed to win 15-13 in an epic third set after a 3-hour and 44-minute match. She then saved another two match points against Germany’s Angelique Kerber and won 9-7 in the third to reach the final. Although she lost the final against Wozniacki after a dramatic 2-hour and 49-minute battle, Halep put up a good fight and showed a driven positive attitude throughout the match. Her coach, Australian Darren Cahill, played a huge role in this aspect, working with Halep to eliminate the negative self talk, have more confidence, play in the moment without the fear of the outcome and simply enjoy the high level of tennis in which she was competing. This new approach allows her to play more relaxed and bring out the quality game she is capable of producing when she is positive and focused. The mental side has been Halep’s most challenging opponent over the years, and she seems to be on the right track of overcoming this hurdle.
Halep is the first Romanian female player in history to reach No. 1 in the world, and while this is an unbelievable achievement already, her journey toward winning a Grand Slam title continues. The first Romanian player to win a Grand Slam title was Virginia Ruzici in 1978 when she defeated Mima Jaušovec of former Yugoslavia. With continuous hard work, discipline and a positive mindset, it could be a just a matter of time until Halep follows Ruzici’s steps and becomes the second Romanian female to win a Grand Slam.*
About Ramona Husaru
Ramona Husaru is USPTA’s education and multimedia manager. In her role, Ramona is in charge of overseeing the continuing education program and expanding its resources, including: online education via TennisResources.com, conferences and other education events. She is a USPTA tester and part of the USPTA Under 30 initiative, developing opportunities through education and leadership for fellow young professionals. Ramona is a former WTA-ranked player and a two-time NCAA Division II National Team Champion with BYU-Hawaii. She is a native of Romania.