Simona Halep often finds herself looking up at her opponents. But her opponents now find themselves looking up at Halep.
That’s because the Romanian, who stands only 5-6, assumed the No. 1 ranking in the world in February. She is among the smallest players on tour, often finding herself in a sea of six-footers, but she has developed one of the biggest games, and in the process shown she has one of the biggest hearts.
The 26-year-old is the U.S. Open’s No. 1 seed and she will inaugurate the new Louis Armstrong Stadium on Monday when she plays the first match there against veteran Kaia Kenapi.
This has been Halep’s breakout year. She won the French Open in June for her first Grand Slam title. She defeated defending U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens in the final. She also defeated Stephens in the hard-court final at Montreal earlier in August. She’s 46-8 on the year, including a loss in the final of the Australian Open to Caroline Wozniacki, and has ESPN’s Brad Gilbert gushing with praise.
“She’s 5-5. It’s amazing,” Gilbert said last week. “It’s seriously amazing how well she has gotten the last few years, and unbelievable credit to Killer Cahill [coach Darren] for his unbelievable belief in her. She’s earned to be the No. 1 player in the world. It’s an amazing accomplishment.”
Having been notoriously hard on herself during an up and down career, the French Open title brought her validation and self-belief.
“Definitely my dream came true. Inside myself something changed,” Halep said at the National Tennis Center on Friday. “I’m more relaxed. I feel thankful for everything I achieved. Also these two were my dreams, to be No. 1 in the world and to win a Grand Slam. Always I say No. 1 in the world without a Grand Slam, you are not a real No. 1. I said that before. After French Open, I really started to believe that I’m a real No. 1. So I think it made me more confident, made me more relaxed. I have a different desire now when I’m on court. I enjoy it more.”
ESPN’s Chris Evert doesn’t want to discount Serena’s Williams chances for a seventh Open title as she continues her comeback from maternity leave. But she sees Halep as a legitimate challenger.
“She will be a threat to Serena. She’s one player that will be,” Evert said. “Sloane Stephens for sure, but Halep also because she’s so solid and because she can run down and defuse a lot of Serena’s balls. And she’s confident. You can see it. She gets herself out of holes. The last couple weeks, she was down in matches and she pulled these matches out, and it was like, OK, that’s like Serena-like, and she’s starting to do it now because she has that belief in herself. She can run all day and she can still play offensive tennis when she needs to, I think definitely she’s going to be a threat to Serena.”
Halep made it to the semifinals at the Open once, in 2015. She got bounced out in the first round last year by Maria Sharapova, who stands head and shoulders above her, but decidedly below her in the rankings.
Halep enters the tournament confident, and fully aware that this field is pretty wide-Open, saying “Anyone from the top 10 can win this tournament.”
But there’s only one No. 1 player in the world, and that just happens to be Halep.
“For sure it’s special when I hear,” Halep said. “I take it like maybe the biggest thing in my career, the biggest feeling that I ever had. But when you start the match, you forget that you are No. 1, you have all the titles. You just have the battle ahead in front of you. You have just to fight for it, so I’m doing that.”