Halep ready to take on Paris with a smile

 - Reem Abulleil

After picking up the title in Rome and extending her winning streak, the world No.2 shifts her focus to Roland-Garros.

Simona Halep, Roland Garros final 2018© Pauline Ballet/FFT

In a Covid-interrupted season and amid turbulent times around the world, Simona Halep has come out of her lockdown stronger and “more mature”, which might explain why she arrives to Roland-Garros high on confidence and riding a 14-match winning streak.

A champion on Parisian clay in 2018, Halep checked off an important item on her bucket list on Monday when she lifted the trophy in Rome for the first time.

It was her third consecutive title triumph in 2020, and it came on the back of victories in Prague last month and Dubai in February, pre-lockdown.

The Romanian holds a remarkable 20-2 win-loss record for the season, with her only two defeats coming in January – to Aryna Sabalenka in the Adelaide quarter-finals, and to Garbiñe Muguruza in the Australian Open semi-finals.

The world No.2, who will be the top seed in the French capital in the absence of defending champion Ashleigh Barty, is considered the favourite for the Roland-Garros title. But Halep insists she will not be burdened with her own expectations or stressing about results.

“The pressure, I'm used to it. I've been No.1 and playing a Grand Slam, so it's more [pressure] than now. So I'm not going to think about that,” the 28-year-old told WTA Insider on Monday.

“If people think that I am a favourite, well, I'm not thinking about that because every match it's a battle and everyone wants to get it so badly.”

Halep spent the five-month tour hiatus working hard on her fitness and her game. But it is her mentality that has helped her navigate these tricky circumstances with such strength and poise.

“I'm more mature, I think. The pandemic got me in a place that I really dreamed to be,” she said with a laugh. “I am more relaxed because I could see that the most difficult things are in life in general, not in sport.”

One man who has been by her side all year is Artemon Apostu-Efremov, a Romanian who shares coaching duties with Darren Cahill.

Apostu-Efremov, or Arti as he is commonly known, brings down Halep’s incredible run, pre and post-hiatus, to one thing.

“Her capacity to adapt,” he told rolandgarros.com. “She’s getting better match by match, she’s drawing the right conclusion after each match and she tries to get better on the next one.”

Did he expect her to pick up right where she left off when the tour restarted?

“We certainly were hoping. The work was there, she did a lot of good practices and she was improving a lot physically during this time and we had time to spend on clay and work on specific stuff.

"So this slow-down, we used it as better as we could and I’m happy that she sees the results and she can get rewarded for the work she did."

With Roland-Garros being staged in the autumn this year, and players limited to a smaller number of tournaments in a truncated clay season, the challenges they will be facing these next couple of weeks are quite unique.

Still, Halep is choosing to see the positives rather than dwelling on what she cannot control.

“It is different. I am fresher. Of course I did work hard at home, but I didn't have matches, many matches, so my body is not that used [to it]. So, yeah, it's a plus, in my opinion, that I feel fresh,” she told reporters after the Rome final.

“I played really well this year. I have three titles already. I played so much on clay. I feel confident. I feel happy that I will have a chance to play another Grand Slam this year.

"I'm not going to let myself be bothered about the weather or something like this. I just try to be happy, to take the positives from this tournament, and to go there smiling.”

Apostu-Efremov believes players are accustomed to adjusting their game based on the varying weather conditions in Paris, and expects Halep to do just fine.

“Paris always the weather was tricky and we had this variation. For sure the weather plays a role but as a player you have to adapt to the conditions and try to use it in your advantage to win the match," he said.

"That’s how it works. You cannot fight the weather so you have to adapt to it."

That capacity to adapt holds Halep in good stead for the fortnight ahead with a second Roland-Garros crown on the line.