By Derren Howard
The thing with some professional athletes, when you meet them away from the field of play, they often seem too nice to be as competitive as they need to be.
World No.2 tennis player Simona Halep was as laid back and mild mannered as could be as we shared a ride in the back of a taxi from Devonshire Park to the Eastbourne Downs for a charity photo shoot. A good run at the Aegon International, her first tournament since her crushing French Open final defeat to unseeded Jelena Ostapenko, could see her wrestle the the No.1 spot from Angelique Kerber.
Halep has been on the relentless tennis circuit for 11 years and currently she’s in the sweet spot of her career. At 25, the Romanian has the experience to deal with the pressures of life on tour and the desire, athleticism and skill to progress to the later stages of the big tournaments - it’s a fine combination.
She models her game on seven-time Grand Slam winner Justine Henin and is ultra offensive and aggressive from the baseline. It’s a style that’s yielded 15 WTA titles and a very healthy $17,219,302 in prize money but a Grand Slam title still eludes her.
She came desperately close at Roland Garros last month. A set to the good and 3-0 up in the second, Halep was cruising to a maiden slam in Paris against Ostapenko.
What happened next was a shock that ranked 10 on the tennis Richter Scale. With nothing to lose Ostapenko blasted winner after winner, 54 to be precise, and Halep simply could not wrestle back momentum from the nerveless Latvian. Ostapenko was brilliantly faultless and closed out the match. Halep’s Grand Slam dream had gone and for now, so had her chance to become the world no.1.
“I felt like a spectator,” she said. “I felt she (Ostanpenko) had no emotions even when she was close to winning, so she deserves to win.”
The manner of defeat will certainly leave a mark on Halep, how could it not? But the nature of life on tour demands that you move forward. After winning tournaments in Rome and Madrid then reaching the final in Paris her clay season was a success. She approaches the English grass tournaments with optimism, starting with Eastbourne.
Halep is from Constanța, a city on the shores of the Black Sea in south eastern Romania, and her father was a footballer who competed in the lower leagues for Sageata Stejaru. She practiced tennis daily from the age of six and moved to Bucharest aged 16 to further her tennis career. In 2013 she won an incredible six WTA titles in a single calendar year, a feat that was last achieved by Steffi Graf in 1986.
Being away from home is something that Halep hasn’t always found easy but having recently taken in Rome, Madrid and Paris how does genial Eastbourne compare? “I like it. We have a beach view so that is nice but I don’t have air con in my room, it was so hot I could not sleep. I asked and they said many hotels here don’t. Maybe it’s not this hot too often.”
It was a problem the fickle English summer soon resolved but life on the tennis tour is an existence spent passing through airports and hotels and all the little annoyances that go with it.
“I’m not a big fan of travelling,” she admitted. “But this is my job. I like to stay at home with friends, family and by myself. Sometimes by yourself is good.”
Halep was not complaining though. It is indeed her job and it’s a profession she’s worked tirelessly at for 20 years - her next two or three could well be her most lucrative.
Eastbourne is a fine pre-Wimbledon event in it’s own right and the winning lady banks a cheque for £109,713. A week later however, at SW19, an eyewatering £2.2m is on offer for the player who lifts the Venus Rosewater Trophy. Halep, a Wimbledon finalist in 2014, is a genuine contender. Can she afford to go all out at Eastbourne with the riches of Wimbledon and a chance of a first Grand Slam just around the corner?
“I treat it (Eastbourne) as very important. I don’t play many tournaments, I have just 16 or 17 so every tournament I play I want to play 100 per cent. I’m here, it’s a good tournament before Wimbledon, I will try my best. There are many good players here and grass can be unpredictable. A big serve can be important on grass. I do not have a big serve but I have my slice. I can really work the slice.”
The car pulled up to the foot of the Downs and we scaled the steep hill where she and Canadian player Vasek Pospisil gently volleyed the ball to each other with the Eastbourne coast making a picture perfect backdrop. The shoot was to promote the Friends of Sussex Hospices, where you can walk the Downs as part of the Hospice trail.
After the body blow of Paris and before the intense battle of Wimbledon, the fresh air of the Eastbourne Downs could well provide the perfect tonic for Halep, a laid back individual fiercely determined to be the world No.1.