Simona Halep shook her head with amazement as she sat in the player’s lounge in Toronto’s Aviva Centre, recalling all that has happened since her 56-minute victory in the Wimbledon final over 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams.
The Romanian tennis star was in a quiet corner of the busy lounge, while women and their entourages on the WTA Tour relaxed on couches, chatted on bistro stools or played pool. It’s been a whirlwind few weeks since the finest match of Halep’s career. Now she has a Rogers Cup title to defend, and an interesting young Canadian to take under her wing on the doubles court, too.
She stunned the most dominant female tennis player in history 6-2, 6-2 on the same esteemed grass court where the American star had rollicked to seven Wimbledon titles in 14 years. It was the second Grand Slam for Halep – she won at Roland Garros in 2018 – but this was the first Wimbledon title for a Romanian.
“It made the title that much sweeter to beat Serena in the finals,” said Halep, who had lost to Williams in nine of their previous 10 meetings. “I have to admit that because I admire her so much and she’s an inspiration for everybody.”
Romanians prepared a hero’s welcome for their beloved sporting daughter back home.
A large throng of fans awaited Halep as she disembarked from her plane at Bucharest Henri Coanda International Airport, holding some newly earned Wimbledon hardware high above her head.
Some 30,000 Romanians gathered inside Bucharest National Stadium for a ceremony to honour the 5-foot-6 WTA star. There were video tributes from famous Romanians, including Olympic gymnastics legend Nadia Comaneci – a close friend and mentor of Halep’s. Inside the soccer stadium, she was showered with confetti and they sang out her name.
“I’m used to big crowds when I play tennis, but this was much more,” the 27-year-old said. “Hearing them all chant my name was something so special, and I don’t have words to say what I felt.”
The President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis, invited Halep to a ceremony at Romania’s Cotroceni Palace, where he honoured her with the national Order of the Star of Romania.
“She knows how difficult it is for many people in Romania, and it was important to her to see the people supporting her and she is giving them a vision,” said her coach, Daniel Dobre. “Some people might think, ‘Oh she was No. 1 only when Serena was not playing, or one title at Roland Garros, you are maybe lucky.’ But this was a confirmation, beating Serena, what more could you want? They give her credit for what she did.”
Halep says she didn’t touch a racquet for two weeks after hoisting Wimbledon’s Venus Rosewater Dish and attending the Wimbledon ball.
“It’s always tough to get her to take a break because she’s afraid she’s going to lose the feeling,” said Teo Cercel, Halep’s fitness coach. “When you play that good and you’re that confident, you’re afraid to take a break, but she really needed to.”
Halep won the Rogers Cup in Montreal in both 2018 and 2016. She said coming off such an emotional run will be challenging this week in Toronto. This marks her switch to hard courts. The aim is to regain her top form in time for the U.S. Open later this month.
Halep said she always enjoys a strong contingent of Romanian fans with their flags when she plays in Toronto. She has met some back on the practice courts over the years, too.
She’s now No. 4 in the WTA world rankings, and opens play Wednesday as the fourth seed against qualifier Jennifer Brady of the United States. The bracket shows potential for Halep and eighth-seeded Williams to meet in the quarter-finals.
When the two played at Wimbledon, many called Halep “nearly perfect.” She committed just three unforced errors that day compared with Williams’s 26. Her defence was sensational. Halep said she had a rare feeling of lightness in her body and her mind that day. Her confidence was sky high.
“I’m not going to stress myself to touch that level again, because it’s a little bit tough in this moment. I’m not going to put pressure on myself this week,” Halep said. “Of course I’ll try my best, I always do that. But I have no expectations for this period. I will take it slowly and I’ll see how good I can be.”
She will comprise an intriguing doubles team, too. Halep told the Rogers Cup tournament director Karl Hale that she wanted to join the doubles draw, and asked him to suggest women who needed a partner. Among the players he recommended was 16-year-old Montrealer Leylah Annie Fernandez, who recently won the junior French Open – as Halep had done as a teen. The two players met for the first time on Sunday, after they agreed to be a team.
“I picked Leylah because I heard she’s really ambitious and a real fighter and I’d like to share the court with her,” Halep said. “For me, it’s nice to play with someone growing up so nice, and for sure I’ll have fun with her, but I hope we win also. I can get the pleasure of the sport by playing with a player 10 years younger than me who is playing so well. It’s a good experience for me, too.”