Simona Halep has the whole of Romania at her feet – and rightfully so

  • World No. 3 wins BRD Bucharest Open after defeating Roberta Vinci 6-1, 6-3

  • “Thank you, Romania. Thank you, Romanians.”

Simona Halep at the BRD Bucharest Open - Foto  Ciprian Vlăduț

Simona Halep at the BRD Bucharest Open - Foto Ciprian Vlăduț

In the world of sport, when talking about Romania, only a few names spring to mind. Ilie Năstase, Nadia Comăneci and Gheorghe Hagi are probably the most important ones that fit in this select category of sporting heroes.

While Hagi is remembered for his creative play, outstanding technical skills, imposing leadership and his sheer footballing talent, often being regarded as the country’s greatest player, Comăneci is renowned for being the first gymnast to be given a perfect mark of 10 at the Olympic Games in the history of the sport.

In tennis, Ilie Năstase was the first player to become World No. 1 since the ATP introduced its computerised ranking system back in 1973. Winning 58 singles titles throughout his career, including two Grand Slams at the US Open and Roland Garros, his accomplishments have put Romania on the map and Năstase in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, where he was inducted in 1991. His glory days were a long time ago, but recently, a fresh face has been causing quite a stir in the country’s sport scene and beyond.

Simona Halep’s rise to the top over the last year has been nothing short of breathtaking. As she now sits comfortably at World No. 3 in the WTA rankings – the highest position of any female tennis player the country has ever had – one has to wonder how long can she keep it up. Since June last year, she has won eight WTA Tour titles and has played the Roland Garros final as well as a semi-final at Wimbledon only last month.

The last of her titles, while not her most valuable, has to be the one that matters the most for the young Romanian, as it has been won in front of her new and massive native fan base. It all happened last week, as the BNR Arenas hosted the first edition of the BRD Bucharest Open, the country’s first and only tournament included in the WTA Tour calendar so far. Halep was one of the key reasons for which the competition made its debut in the first place, so it was only natural that she was the main attraction in town for the seven days.

Thousands gathered all week long to see Romania’s biggest sporting hero at work and a full arena cheered for her when she defeated Roberta Vinci of Italy in straight sets, 6-1, 6-3, to take the trophy. The crowd made for a thrilling atmosphere throughout the week, and got its just reward when Halep fired a cross-court forehand winner to seal her most sentimental victory yet.

“You were very special all week long,” she said, addressing the public at the closing ceremony. “I’d like to thank you for your support and I wish you will be by my side in the future, as you were here. Thank you, Romania. Thank you, Romanians.”

Women’s tennis in Romania has constantly been producing talented players that mingle with the world’s best 100 for some time now, but Halep is the first of them to really achieve her breakthrough. Comparing the results of the six ladies who are currently inside the top 100 with Victor Hănescu’s lowly 104th position in the ATP rankings as the best the men have to offer, it becomes quite clear and easy to understand why all the hype surrounding Halep is taking place.

The 22 year old has managed to take the sport by storm and her supporters are growing in number rapidly worldwide, but that doesn’t seem to put her off one bit. Her friendly and down-to-earth personality has been one of the things that has contributed to her charm, and celebrity status is one issue she definitely appears not to think of. She always seems to show pure emotion and a kind of simplicity that most high profile sports stars nowadays lack in one way or another.

On court, she is always highly motivated, very eager to play as best as she can and her confidence levels keep getting higher and higher. One of the key aspects of her success has been her ability to move around the court like no other. Light on her feet, she has some sort of Federer-ish feel to her game, excelling both in aggressive strikes of the ball as well as when defending. She rarely gives up chasing a ball, and more often than not, makes her opponents wonder what on earth can they do to put it past her. Her serve has been constantly improving over the past months, while her groundstrokes are among the best of the women’s game.

For the people of her country, Halep’s success has been a blessing, one wonderful highlight to look up to in an otherwise pretty empty sporting movement at international level. Romania’s absence from the football World Cup held in Brazil following their defeat by the hands of Greece in the play-offs seems to have been forgotten as tennis enjoys a rare spell of intense media coverage thanks to the achievements of one regular person-turned-star.

In a place where conditions for making it big time in the world of sport very much pale in comparison to other European countries, Halep has always stuck with her position as a firm believer of her national identity. Although she recently employed Belgian Wim Fissette, who helped Kim Clijsters win three Grand Slams and also worked with Sabine Lisicki, as her coach, she still trains in Romania and repeatedly states that she loves her country at press conferences.

The simple fact that she was present in Bucharest for a tournament that has not managed to attract many other top players is a clear statement in this regard. After injuring her ankle in her Wimbledon semi-final, she was expected to take time away from the tour for some weeks, but insisted that she would play her home tournament beforehand as a sign of respect for her fellow Romanian supporters.

“I heard that the tickets were sold-out, and I imagine people will want to see me play, so I don’t want to disappoint,” she said before her first-round match against Indy de Vroome.

“To have a WTA event in the country is something incredible. It will be nice to play here, and I will be nervous to face the Romanian public, as I have been when playing in the Fed Cup.” She didn’t seem very nervous when she bageled  her younger opponent in the opening set of the tournament, which paved the way for her eighth career title.

Having already won tournaments on all surfaces, Halep will be keen to add to her Majors record heading into the US Open at the end of August. It represented Năstase’s first Grand Slam tournament win back in 1972, so why wouldn’t it be her first as well? Her results at Roland Garros and Wimbledon do suggest that such a success will come sooner, rather than later.

Romania has been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent times, but Simona Halep has been a badly needed breath of fresh air for the country and is slowly becoming a great worldwide ambassador for Romanian sport.

“It is a special thing [that people talk more about Romania because of me]. Firstly, I’m happy that I managed to do what I have done so far in tennis. But I don’t want to stop. I want to do even better, and my dream is to climb even higher. I hope to be closer to Hagi, Nadia and Năstase.”