Simona Halep has put four months of heartache behind her to become world No 1 for the first time, but the 26-year-old Romanian is far from satisfied.
“I’ve always said that winning a Grand Slam title is what is most important,” Halep told The Independent when asked to compare the achievement of topping the world rankings with winning one of the sport’s four major trophies.
“If you get to No 1 people say: ‘But you didn’t win a Grand Slam.’ You cannot win because you can say the same the other way round. In my opinion both are really important. If you want to finish your career really happy with what you did, you have to win both.”
Halep would have achieved the two goals at the same time this summer if she had beaten Jelena Ostapenko in the French Open final, but she let slip a 3-0 lead in the deciding set against an opponent who had arrived at Roland Garros as the world No 47 and a 100-1 outsider.
It was fitting, therefore, that the 20-year-old Latvian was again on the other side of the net in the semi-finals of last week’s China Open as Halep completed a 6-2, 6-4 victory to secure the ranking points she needed to replace Garbine Muguruza as world No 1.
After Paris Halep spurned two further chances to go to the top of the world rankings – when she lost to Johanna Konta in the Wimbledon quarter-finals and to Muguruza in the Cincinnati final one month later – but said the defeat to Ostapenko had hurt the most. It was the Romanian’s second loss in a Grand Slam final following her defeat by Maria Sharapova at Roland Garros in 2014.
Although Halep insisted that she had done “everything I could” to beat Ostapenko, she admits now that playing too cautiously after going within one point of a 4-0 lead in the deciding set had cost her the prize.
“I believe that I had just reached my limit on that day, also emotionally,” Halep said. “She played really well and was hitting all the balls. No regrets, but I was sad afterwards and for sure if I was in that position now I would be more aggressive. For certain at 3-0 and break point I think I would go and hit it hard.”
In the depths of her despair, nevertheless, Halep received encouragement from a former world No 1 and Grand Slam champion who had gone through similar troubles early in her career.
“Kim Clijsters told me after the French Open that she had lost four Grand Slam finals before winning her first one, so maybe I just needed time,” Halep said. “Maybe you get experience and you get used to those moments, because they’re not easy. Maybe you just go out there and just don’t think that you’re playing in a Grand Slam final.”
Although Halep is still looking for her first Grand Slam title, she believes her Paris experience has already helped her mentally. “After the match I was down for a while, but then, maybe before the US Open, I was telling myself: ‘I played in the final.’ I looked at it positively. I was proud of the result.”
Halep is the fifth woman to top the world rankings this year – after Angelique Kerber, Serena Williams, Karolina Pliskova and Muguruza – but it could be argued that becoming world No 1 is a greater achievement than winning a Grand Slam title. Since the world rankings were launched 42 years ago only 25 women have reached world No 1, but over the same period there have been 43 different Grand Slam singles champions.
Halep said that 2017 had been the best year of her career and agreed that one of the key reasons has been the team she has assembled around her.
Darren Cahill, who worked with two former men’s world No 1s in Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi, became Halep’s coach two years ago, though he does not travel to every tournament. The Australian was with her at the US Open but has missed her recent tournaments and will not work with her again until the end-of-season WTA Finals in Singapore later this month.
In recent weeks Halep has been accompanied by Andrei Pavel, a 43-year-old Romanian and former world No 13 who is from her home city of Constanta.
“He was my idol when I was 10 or, 11, when I was growing up in Romania,” Halep said. “Darren said he wanted him in the team, and of course I agreed because I had always liked Andrei. Darren said that he would be a good fit in our team, a little bit of a different voice, and of course he has experience.
“He’s a very nice person and we’ve been having fun. He’s very relaxed so that fits in well with the team because Darren is the same. He’s working hard with me and we also have the same mentality because he also grew up in Romania. I also needed someone good when I was training at home. I don’t like to train alone.’’
She added: “In my opinion for the last two years I’ve had the best team. Also now with Andrei I hope he will be like the last piece [in the jigsaw]. He has good energy and is very motivated to improve everything in my game.”
Halep also admitted that she has been working with a sports psychologist, though she was reluctant to go into details. She said she talked regularly with the psychologist on the phone, but when asked if they spoke specifically about how to prepare for matches she avoided the question. “I don’t want to say,” she said with a laugh.
Whatever they talk about, it seems to work. Halep lifted two burdens from her back in Beijing last week. Not only did she finally earn the points to become world No 1 but she also beat Sharapova for the first time. The Russian had won all seven of their previous meetings, the most recent in the first round of this year’s US Open.
Halep admits that the burden of chasing the world No 1 ranking had weighed her down during the summer. “I thought a lot about it and maybe I lost some matches because of it,” she said.
The Romanian had been within two points of victory over Konta in the tie-break at the end of the second set in their Wimbledon quarter-final and admitted that the world rankings situation had been on her mind both before and after the match.
“I felt that I was really close,” she said. “Maybe emotionally I was a little bit down and then my confidence went down and I couldn’t win the match any more.”
Now, having put all those mental difficulties behind her, Halep admits that she has “a few more dreams” to realise in her career, though she would mention only one: “To win a Grand Slam.