Romania’s Simona Halep, currently ranked as the top female tennis player in the world, enjoyed a highly satisfying career milestone in 2017. Halep, as a result of Garbine Muguruza’s loss at the China Open, clinched the World No.1 ranking for the first time in her professional tennis career, thereby becoming the seventh player to reach that landmark without winning a Grand Slam title. But, perhaps, the only blemish is that Halep’s personal trophy return this year is not a testament to her ranking status. Her sole title win in 2017 was her triumph at the Mutua Madrid Open. But in reaching a second French Open final and with the finish line insight against the flamboyant Latvian, Jelena Ostapenko, Halep faltered, and squandered an incredibly commanding lead in the second set. Halep could be forgiven for letting such a huge advantage slip as she could not withstand a barrage of aggressive hitting from the 20-year old Ostapenko, but in fairness, this was a match the Romanian had to win and once again she was second best. Fast forward to Beijing, Halep avenged her loss at Roland Garros, dispatching Ostapenko in straight sets to become World No.1 for the first time.
Can the Romanian build on from 2017 and win a Major title?
Halep did suffer a lackluster start to the season with a left knee injury, culminating in a first-round exit at the Australian Open, followed by defeats in the third round at Indian Wells and quarterfinals at the Miami Open to Kristina Mladenovic and Johanna Konta, respectively. Her most productive results were achieved during the European clay swing. According to SAP Tennis Analytics, Halep had the best winning percentage on the dirt (85.7%,) which included a successful title defense in Madrid, a semi-final showing in Stuttgart before that, and a runner-up finish in Rome–where she was in control against Elina Svitolina until an unfortunate ankle injury at the closing end of the first set that was decisive in the context of the match.
It is evident that the Romanian’s preferred surface is on the clay, where she complements her unrelenting retrievals with a very aggressive baseline game. She is not the hardest hitter in the world, but her movement is exquisite. She is one of the fastest women on the tennis circuit, and her crosscourt backhand is just as effective as it is damaging. Her Wimbledon record is also not bad either. Back-to-back quarterfinal appearances is a real positive to carry into next year, and she does have a game for grass.
There is mix of elements that need to all come together to win a Major. Talent and hard work are two of them, and Halep definitely has them in her. However, she will need more zeal and mental strength to overcome the barriers that come with winning Grand Slams. When she lost to Maria Sharapova at the 2014 French Open final in a tightly contested match, she said at the time, “There is nothing I would love more than to come back here and win this event. This has been a very special moment for me, and one which will forever be in my heart.”
Simona Halep will reflect on 2017 as a year she achieved her dream of conquering the summit of women’s tennis, but on a broader side of things she will feel she could have achieved much more. A crushing defeat in the Cincinatti final to Muguruza where she won just a single game will be one of her lowest moments of this year and one which she will have garnered lessons for the upcoming season.
Although she did clinch the No.1 ranking in Beijing courtesy of that win over Ostapenko, she ran into an inspired Caroline Garcia that stopped her from double celebration in the final. Her performance at the season ending WTA Championships in Singapore dipped, and she was eliminated at round robin stage. She is expected to retain the services of Darren Cahill as coach for 2018 despite that brief split after Miami when she lost to Johanna Konta, and also Andrei Pavel whom Halep appointed to join her team after the US Open defeat to Sharapova.
Halep’s season can be categorized as near perfect, but that one Grand Slam is still missing on her ever improving résumé. She has had two shots already, and lost on both occasions, and to classify that as a hoodoo might be unreasonable, but Simona Halep could make it third time lucky in 2018.