By HOWARD FENDRICH
PARIS (AP) — It was the end of a long and rewarding day, one she’ll likely never forget, and new French Open champion Simona Halep harbored a couple of overriding concerns. “I’m tired,” she said. “I’m hungry. I didn’t eat since 9 a.m.” It was getting close to 12 hours since that last meal, and Halep was speaking to two reporters in what she hoped was her last media session Saturday night after beating Sloane Stephens 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 for her first Grand Slam title. Halep had pined for such a championship to go along with her No. 1 ranking, and she finally had come through after starting her career 0-3 in major finals.
“I think it was the most important thing, because always I said that if you are No. 1 without a Grand Slam, you are not a real No. 1,” Halep said. “Now that I was able to win, it makes it special, and makes it, like, everything together. It’s real now.” Sure is. “She showed a lot of maturity. She’s grown up a lot in the last 12 months. Sometimes the losses do make you mature really quickly. You can go one way with your career, and go downwards, or you can suck it up, work a little bit harder and try to do it again,” said Halep’s coach, Darren Cahill. “That’s the way she went.”
It was Cahill who encouraged Halep to embrace the goal, to go ahead and be forthright — with herself and everyone else — about yearning for something she had come close to but had yet to achieve. “The Slam is what they play for. Last year, we spoke about this: When she talks about it, not to avoid it. Not to avoid the fact that, ‘Yes, I want to win a major, and this is what I’m pushing for.’ Not trying to take the pressure off her too much,” he said. “And she was able to step up and handle that pressure. Now she can relax, go out there, let her game go.”
Now there can be no more questions from others about whether the 26-year-old Romanian deserves to be atop the rankings without a major trophy to go alongside that feat.
And no more questions about whether she would ever manage to become a Grand Slam champ, following two losses in finals at the French Open in 2014 and 2017, plus another at the Australian Open this January. “She’s had a tough journey. I think winning here is very special for her, and I’m glad she finally got her first Slam. It’s a beautiful thing. Very special,” said Stephens, a 25-year-old American who won the U.S. Open last September.
“No matter how hard the adversity that you go through, there is always light at the end of the tunnel, and I’m glad she finally got her light.” So with that accomplished, Halep was asked, what becomes the new goal? “I didn’t think about it,” she began, with a chuckle. “I will enjoy this moment and I will see.” And then, without even pausing, Halep added: “But I will not stop this. I will go forward and I will get extra motivation with something else, for sure.” Halep does not want to be a one-Slam wonder. Nor should she be considered a candidate for that kind of career. She has a rare combination of speed, power and stamina that makes her dangerous on every surface.
There’s a reason Halep has made it to the final at Roland Garros and the Australian Open, and the semifinals at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, where play begins July 2. Inevitably, the topic of the All England Club and its grass courts was raised at Halep’s post-match news conference. “Oh, don’t ask me that, because I’m going to have a big holiday now,” she joked. “Nothing changes, obviously. I’m a Grand Slam champion, but tomorrow is a new day, so I have to start again.”