Halep admits, after six months away, 'I feel ready to start'
Halep, playing for first time since 20th title in Dubai, still undecided about US Open
Simona Halep could little have expected, when she won her 20th career title in Dubai in February, that she had just played her last match for six months.
Nor that she would become the first woman in Wimbledon’s history to hold her title there for two years without having to defend it. Nor that her most successful Premier Mandatory tournament, the Mutua Madrid Open would, after already moving from May to September, then be cancelled.
But such is the place where she, her fellow tennis players, and people in all walks of life have found themselves as the COVID-19 pandemic swept around the world.
Initially, it may have looked like a stroke of luck that the tennis tour closed the shutters at the start of March: Halep had already withdrawn from the first affected tournament, Indian Wells, with a foot injury. And that meant she had time to rest and rebuild her fitness after getting back to No2 in the world via that Dubai victory and a strong semi run at the Australian Open.
Talking ahead of the Prague Open, just the second tournament to get under way since February, and Halep’s first, she admitted that she had not, at first, been unhappy to get some time away from tennis.
“Well I had a break for about two months in the quarantine period when I couldn’t practise, I just stayed at home. Without tennis, it was a little bit tough and weird, but I had time to relax and take a break, because it has been about 10 years full of tournaments every week. So it was a good stop in a way—but it was tough, I admit.
“Then I stayed home in Bucharest, and was practising hard the last six or seven weeks. I didn’t travel at all—this is the first time since February. I’m a little bit nervous but things are very composed here and very safe.”
It is, of course, not surprising that she, like her fellow players, is a mix of excitement and uncertainty, eagerness to get back to competition but not yet sure how mind and body will respond in these exceptional times. She summed it up:
“I feel ready to start but I’m sure I will struggle a little bit.”
Managing fitness is a primary concern for everyone, and she has elected to keep her practice and preparation to the clay—the surface on which Prague is being played.
She said: “I’ve played 100 percent on clay, I didn’t play any hard courts. I had an injury, so it’s definitely better to start that way—it’s softer and for injury, much better.”
Seven of her 20 titles have come on clay, including her first Major, the French Open, where she has also been runner-up twice. She has also won the top-flight WTA event in Madrid twice from four finals. But there is no denying that her aggressive baseline game, founded on superb movement and anticipation, translates very well to hard courts. She has been particularly successful in the Doha/Dubai Premiers and at the Rogers Cup.
At the US Open, though, she has a more modest record—one semi-final run. So the big question of the day—not just for Halep but for the tennis world at large—is whether this year’s US Open, played behind closed doors and with conditions and restrictions unparalleled in the sport, is on her agenda.
She was frank:
“I didn’t make that decision yet. After I’ve finished here, I will decide what to do… Travelling from Europe is a little bit tough with the flights—there are no direct flights from home [to the US Open]—and personally, mentally. I haven’t decided yet, but it will be tough.”
Though when pressed on the issue of switching so abruptly to hard courts, she added:
“I don’t see it’s difficult coming from clay to hard to clay. It’s harder moving to grass.
In Prague, a big test certainly came early, against No46 ranked Palona Hercog. All three of their previous matches had gone the distance, and their first-round tussle was no different. Halep needed two and a half hours and seven match points to close out the win, 6-1, 1-6, 7-6(3).
Asked how she felt, she smiled: “It was great because I won it, but it was very difficult. All our matches are very tough and long. But it was important after a six month break to win a match.”
She went on to talk about both the mental and physical challenges of the new playing environment.
“It’s not easy always to be focused, with all the distraction and restrictions and rules, but we have to adjust. We are living in tough times. I hope I can be better next match.
“After the first set, I already felt tired. I felt tension in my back, but I knew she was in the same position so I had to stick to the plan and fight.”
She enjoyed a day off from the singles draw on Wednesday, though played and lost a doubles match with the former No1 doubles player Barbora Strycova. And she may have expected a rather easier time of it against the 118-ranked Barbora Krejcikov, though their only previous match, played on clay, albeit four years ago, was also a three-setter.
Krejcikov, however, had more match-play under her belt from a slew of exhibition events, and it showed. The rust was certainly evident in former No1 Halep, and after four breaks of serve to start the match, it was Krejcikov who held first.
Halep looked a step slow, and had lost 12 of the previous 14 points as she stepped in to serve at 2-5 down. She held, but the Czech served out the set, 6-3, and there were then multiple breaks on each side to start the second set. Halep’s double faults were up to eight by the time she held for 5-2. Yet the errors continued, and Krejcikov broke to deny the top seed four set points, and all at once, it was 5-5. However, Halep strung together three big points to break for the set, 7-5.
It did not look good for the Romanian as she took treatment to neck and shoulder at every change of ends in the third set, but despite Krejcikov getting the first break again, her own weariness brought with it errors, and Halep took control to grab the win, 6-2, after more than two hours.
Halep afterwards conceded that her serving was “not great at this point, but I am working on it,” before adding, “Hopefully it will get better day by day.”
It is a sentiment that could easily be applied to the situation of every tennis player around the world.