The Particular Drama of Simona Halep
Simona Halep first picked up a racquet when she was four years old. At fourteen, she decided to dedicate her life to tennis. At sixteen, she left her family, in the small, ancient city of Constanta, Romania, and moved into a hotel in the capital, Bucharest, in order to train at a serious academy. Her father jokingly called her his “little Rolex,” because, at a young age, she told him that she would win the big tournaments. At seventeen, she had breast-reduction surgery—a frightening procedure, which lasted nearly seven hours—in order to relieve pain in her back and help her game. As a child, Halep was so shy that it was painful for her even to speak on the phone, but she forced herself to face the cameras and the scrutiny of the media, which grew more intense with each season. Every day, she went to the gym to tend to her muscles, joints, and ligaments. When her friends went to parties, she went to sleep.
She had talent to match the work ethic: she won the junior French Open in 2008, at the age of seventeen, turned pro, and broke into the Top 100. But it was not obvious that she would ever reach the top ten. Halep is small for a tennis player—she’s only five feet six—and she lacked a big serve and blistering shots. The larger problem was that she would sometimes fall apart. She went nearly a year, from May of 2012 to March of 2013, without winning two matches in a row. The Times once described one of her matches as “mesmerizing, like any passing calamity.”
Then, in 2013, she started to win—six titles that season. That was when I started watching her, and I, like the Times, found her game mesmerizing, though for different reasons. Halep had peerless stamina and speed, and played with perfect technique. Her sloping shoulders became muscular, and her legs strong; her feet were light and quick, always moving. She dug sure winners out from far corners. She had an instinct for the geometry of the game, carefully constructing her points. Her forehand was clean and metronomic, her backhand powerful and poised. When she hit it perfectly down the line, you could see the pleasure it gave her, as though she were a singer settling into a high note. Likewise, when she faltered, the air around her seemed to vibrate with despair.
As for her sudden success, there were the usual factors: good health, a new coach, a more aggressive mentality. She said that she had become more relaxed, and was enjoying the game. She had a newfound belief in her ability to challenge the top players. Whatever it was, it looked like an awakening. Her eyes, wide-set and hazel, radiated a rare intensity.
In 2014, at twenty-two, she made it to the final of the French Open. She racked up big wins over top players, including an in-form Serena Williams, and rose to No. 2 in the world. The following year, she won Indian Wells, a tournament at the level just below the majors. She was a contender on any surface. “She’s one of the toughest people I could ever play,” Naomi Osaka, the current No. 1, and the reigning Australian and U.S. Open champion, told me. “She moves really well, and she fights for everything.”
But then, in 2015 and 2016, Halep’s performance seemed to plateau. She was often too willing to hang back and react; she also seemed to be wrestling with her ambition. Whatever sense of freedom had fuelled her rise was forgotten as success bred new expectations, from herself and others. There was the pressure to justify her many sacrifices, and the desire to fulfill her country’s hopes. “Simona is without a doubt THE biggest sports star in Romania,” Adrian Toca, a Romanian journalist, told me, in an e-mail. The coverage was relentless, and not always kind. Small armies of fans come to see her in Doha, Toronto, and Ohio, wrapped in flags. She often fed off their support, and she drew strength from a wellspring of passion. She was so fiery that the commentator Brad Gilbert nicknamed her Halepeño—but her negative emotions could overwhelm her. She would kick the air, scream at her coach and the supporters in her box, swipe her racquet, berate herself. It was alternately thrilling and heartbreaking to watch, as an internal struggle played out on her face, in the set of her shoulders, in the depth of her shot and the placement of her serve. Occasionally, she seemed simply to give up. “She became her worst enemy quite often,” Darren Cahill, who was Halep’s coach from 2016 until the end of 2018, said. “She fought more than one opponent,” he added—there was the player across the net, the people in her coaching box, and herself.
Tennis is a psychologically taxing sport. There are no teammates to rely on, and a coach can’t call timeout when things are going wrong. Tournaments are single-elimination, so there is no way to make up for one bad day. The mechanics of the game can be as much mental as physical: the slightest hesitation will mean a ball flies long; during a serve, stress can make an elbow drop. There is no model for how to handle the pressure. Some players smash racquets. Some can tune everything out. Roger Federer can get over a loss in ten minutes. The greatness of Serena Williams, on the other hand, depends partly on a desire to avenge her few losses.
Halep dreams of playing with the easy touch and the attacking genius of Federer—if she could play like him even “for one point,” she told me recently, “then I would be super happy.” But her game is more like that of Novak Djokovic, mentally and physically crushing. “We like to stay on the baseline and just to kill the opponent, to make him suffer,” she said. In the past, though, she was sometimes the one who seemed to be in agony. “There comes a moment when it’s like she sees this hawk over her head that no one else can see,” Mary Carillo, a commentator and former professional player, told me. “Her matches would take on this doomed quality. And you could watch it!” Halep makes the psychological complexity of sports, the interplay of courage and fear, and of ease and intensity, visible as few athletes do. It’s gripping to see.
When Cahill began coaching Halep, in 2016, she was a classic counterpuncher. She settled behind the baseline, retrieving shots. This usually worked; she could frustrate opponents, baiting them to go for too much, and she could use their power to produce her own. But the style was physically punishing for her, too, and she was vulnerable to getting hit off the court. The fix, to many observers, seemed obvious: she needed to step inside the baseline and play more aggressively. But she’d never been comfortable playing that way.
Cahill, who previously coached Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt, understood that he wasn’t going to change Halep’s nature. Rather than fight her instinct to hang back, Cahill worked on introducing variation to her game, to “open up the court a little more,” he told me, to “zig-zag behind the baseline instead of standing six feet back.” They worked on her transitions to the net, so that she would have the tools to play that game, even if the forecourt would never feel like home. During practice, he had Halep hit drop shots ad nauseum. They analyzed her matches together on YouTube, to study what she could improve. Before, Halep had believed she played best instinctively. Now they came into each match with a plan.
But “probably my biggest job,” Cahill said, was improving Halep’s attitude during matches. For a long time, he didn’t feel like he was making much progress. In 2017, in the quarter-finals of the Miami Open, against Johanna Konta, Halep took the first set, and was two points from victory when her game began to fray. After a spate of loose errors, she lost the second set in a tight tiebreak. During the changeover, Halep called Cahill onto the court. (Mid-match coaching is allowed on the W.T.A. tour, though not at the slams.) She sat in the shade, her light-brown hair pulled into a tight knot and slicked dark with sweat, and towelled off her powerful arms. He sat down beside her at an angle, so that he could look at her. She looked straight ahead. He offered some encouragement and told her to reset. “I’m so bad,” she countered. “I’m ridiculous bad.”
“How are you going to fix it, then?” he asked.
She stared at the ground, not meeting his eyes, and recounted her errors. Then she went back onto the court and lost.
Afterward, Cahill told her that he would not be coaching her anymore. “Shock therapy,” he called it. “It wasn’t just the result of one match,” he explained to me. “It was the result of a year.” She pleaded with him to stay. Her outbursts were just part of her personality, she said, part of her Romanian character. So he gave her a choice. “If there’s a person out there who can help you, I don’t want to hold you back,” he remembers saying. If she believed he was the best coach for her, he told her, then she had to acknowledge that she needed help.
She had already started seeing a sports psychologist, Alexis Castorri, whose clients have included the men’s champion Andy Murray. But Cahill felt she had done that only to please him and wasn’t fully committed. After Miami, Halep concluded that her attitude really was her biggest obstacle, one that she couldn’t overcome with willpower alone. The outbursts misdirected her energy. When she saw them on YouTube and realized what they looked like, she was “embarrassed many times,” she said. Off the court, she was one of the most well-liked players on tour, known for being generous and friendly. On the court, she could transform into someone unrecognizable—angry and clenched. It confused her, she said.
She and Castorri worked on visualizing how she would conduct herself on the court. She chose words of encouragement to focus on in times of stress. She started to explore why it was that she was so hard on herself.
The mind-set of an athlete is often in tension with reality. Self-belief frequently entails self-delusion—a rational person would give up, facing the slim chances that even great athletes have of winning a championship. In these circumstances, confidence is fragile. “You build your confidence in days,” Halep told me. “You can lose it in one minute.”
“Her defeats used to haunt her,” Carillo said. “And she is so emotionally articulate that she could explain the pain to us.”
“You know what I discovered about myself being negative?” Halep said. “It was that I didn’t want to make expectations and to be disappointed that I was not able to do it.” She hadn’t allowed herself to believe that she really could be the top player in the world. Halep found, counterintuitively, that it was easier to handle the disappointment of not being No. 1 when she first believed she could actually do it. “If you understand that,” she said, “you can change something.”
“The attitude was an instant change,” Cahill told me. Before the 2017 French Open began, he was back with her team. She played superbly and entered the final, against Jelena Ostapenko, a young, unseeded Latvian, as the heavy favorite. Halep took the first set and seemed ready to run away with the second, but then she faltered. Ostapenko, her long braid flying like a whip, seemed unaware of the occasion and the scoreline, and she went for a winner every time. Halep, meanwhile, felt the moment again. Her shoulders slumped. Ostapenko had fifty-four unforced errors to Halep’s ten; she also finished with fifty-four winners to Halep’s eight. As her flat shots flew by Halep—in or out—the Romanian slid in the clay, again and again, into a stop. Ostapenko won in three sets.
“For three months, I was really in a bad mood,” Halep told me. “I was suffering a lot, because I was so close, and I felt that I”—she hesitated, took a deep breath—“deserved that trophy, because I played so well. But I was not ready.” Immediately after the match, she admitted to being so nervous before the start that she was sick to her stomach.
Halep wondered whether she had missed her best chance to win a slam. But she also began to accept the idea that losing was part of a long process—a process with the goal of winning, of course, but, first, of growth—as “a person,” she said, “not a tennis player.” She started playing with a little more variety. She played doubles, to help her find a rhythm at the net. She worked on not calling Cahill onto the court during tour-level matches and trying, instead, to solve problems on her own. Cahill had made it clear that he wanted Halep to learn to guide herself on the court. “The best thing a coach can do is coach himself out of the job, because that means the player is understanding the problems,” he told me. As she started to accumulate more wins, she moved toward the No. 1 ranking. With Serena Williams pregnant and on hiatus, several women had occupied the top spot, but none held onto it. Halep did what others could not: she started to win consistently, going deep in tournaments week after week. In October, 2017, she faced Ostapenko again, in the semifinals of the China Open, in Beijing. She won, and clinched the No. 1 ranking.
“I never believed she could be that good,” her trainer, Teo Cercel, who has known Halep since she was twelve , told me bluntly. “Let’s be honest. To be No. 1 is extraordinary. But she surprised me. She surprises me every day.” The difference was that Halep did not surprise herself. “I’ve worked a lot, and everything came with calm,” she said. “I realized everything that was happening.”
The following January, she faced Caroline Wozniacki in the final of the Australian Open, where she lost a thrilling, high-quality, three-set match. Afterward, she was so spent that she ended up in the hospital, suffering from severe dehydration. But she did not feel crushed by the loss, she said. In the 2018 French Open final, she faced Sloane Stephens, the reigning U.S. Open champion, who moved around the court with smooth, low-humming power. Stephens took the first set and went up a break in the second, but Halep recovered. She won several critical points by coming to net, as Cahill watched with delight. She won the third and deciding set, 6–1. The night of her victory, she and her friends and family celebrated at a restaurant near the Arc de Triomphe. Afterward, she brought the trophy to bed.
Many winners have found that victory produces a hollow feeling. But Halep was as happy as she had hoped she would be. She was happy when she awoke the next morning and found the trophy beside her. She was happy when she brought the trophy home to Romania, where twenty thousand fans were there to greet her. She was happy a month later, at Wimbledon, despite losing in the third round, and, later in the year, at the U.S. Open, despite losing her first match. She was exhausted, certainly, as the season went on, but not burned out. She finished the year strong enough to retain the No. 1 spot.
Still, something had shifted. “Life changed after the French Open,” she said. Not life, exactly; the carousel of tournaments was the same, and she was already used to her sponsors’ ceaseless demands. What she meant was that she had changed. Winning a slam had been her priority; now it was done. She still had goals, of course, but she knew she was not Serena Williams, stockpiling grand slams, playing for history. “I’ve done what I wanted and what I have dreamed for,” Halep said. Behind that was a larger and more frightening thought. “Twenty-three years doing the same thing,” she said—and doing it with total intensity. She talked to retired players who struggled to find a sense of purpose. Could she be happy without tennis?
After Halep had secured the year-end No. 1 ranking again, Cahill told her that he would be taking 2019 off from coaching in order to spend more time with his family, back in Australia. “I think there’s a three- or four-year lifespan to help a player, when the same message is coming from the same person,” Cahill said. It wasn’t an easy decision for either of them. “She’s been adopted by my family, to be honest,” he told me. “My daughter was in tears when I told her,” he added. “I said, ‘Well, I’ll be home with you!’ ”
At the end of every previous season, Halep’s attention would quickly turn to improving her fitness, or the next intense training block. Her mind would be on the next tournament. She would spend the holidays thousands of miles from home. This year, instead, she went back to Bucharest and put her racquets down. For nearly two months, she tried seeing what a “normal life” might look like. She organized her apartment. She stayed out at restaurants until eleven or midnight. She played with her young niece Tania, whom she adores, and thought about having children of her own. She made friends—“not tennis people.” She went skiing. For the first time in ten years, she spent Christmas with her family.
She was back on the court, and in good form, early in 2019, before the start of the Australian Open. Journalists who had been covering her for years noticed a change in her demeanor. She was relaxed. (A few quietly wondered, only half-jokingly, whether she had fallen in love.) Halep was also without a coach: she had decided that she would not rush the process of finding someone new to work with but would try to figure things out for herself for a few months.
She was not the first top player to do this. Tennis players are expected to make mid-match adjustments without the help of a coach, at least in the majors. Sloane Stephens also arrived in Australia without a coach; Roger Federer went for years without one. And Halep still had the support of the other members of her team—notably her longtime trainer, her physiotherapist, and her manager.
Halep won three matches in Melbourne before losing a three-set match to Serena Williams. She appeared to take it in stride. A reporter began a question after the match by saying, “You are ranked No. 1, and she is Serena Williams—” Halep cut him off. “Exactly,” she said.
Still, not having a coach by her side at a slam was harder than she had imagined. She found herself burdened by logistics, worrying about booking practice times and finding a hitting partner. Cahill had been the one to scout her opponents, leaving her to focus on her own game. “You lose energy on these things,” she said. Most of all, she missed the voice in her ear, giving her encouragement and advice. But she was leery of entrusting her game to someone she did not know. In February, she briefly tried working with Thierry van Cleemput, but they split within a week. In March, she announced that she had hired Daniel Dobre, a Romanian she had worked with before.
The coaching uncertainty could help explain why Halep has had a quiet year so far. There have been periods of spectacular play—in a 6–0, 6–0 drubbing of Viktoria Kuzmova, in Madrid, she played almost perfect clay-court tennis, giving the most dominant performance in her career. But there have also been surprising losses, and she has yet to win a title in 2019. “I’m playing O.K.,” she said in March, sitting in the players’ lounge at the Miami Open. “I don’t have the rhythm yet.” After her break, she missed “that inspiration and extra power to win matches. But I don’t blame myself. I took the risk in the off-season. I said that if anything will happen, it’s O.K.”
She still has years to play before moving on to “her next life,” as she calls retirement. She is in something of an in-between place now. “I feel like a different person,” she said. “I feel the pressure is off. I don’t know if it’s good or bad,” she added. “But, for my life, for my person, it’s much better.” “The pressure is off” is the kind of thing that athletes often say and less often live by. Halep still carries the weight of enormous expectations. She is the defending French Open champion and the No. 3 player in the world. But ambition can be a complex, dynamic thing. On the eve of this year’s French Open, after a photo shoot in front of the trophy with Rafael Nadal, the tournament’s defending men’s champion, Halep spoke at a press conference, where she emphasized again how much things had changed. “Now I see the things different,” she said, adding, “so I will try to do the things as a kid, enjoying the time.”
She won her first-round match, against Ajla Tomljanović, 6–2, 3–6, 6–1, staying calm on a cool, wet, and windy Tuesday in Paris. When we spoke in March, she told me that her main goal for the year was “to play every match one hundred per cent” and not lose energy on court by complaining. “My focus is not on the result. It’s growing up as a person,” she said. “A process. A big picture.”