In an era where the WTA Tour is becoming more physical and power-hitters are flourishing, Simona Halep developed her own brand of aggressive counter-punching tennis that saw her rise to the summit of the world rankings and stay there for 64 weeks.
At 1.68m, Halep does not fall on the taller side of the WTA spectrum. She does not boast a huge serve or massive groundstrokes that have become so prevalent on the circuit.
“Yeah, but have you seen the size of her legs?” said Eugenie Bouchard of Halep ahead of their second round showdown at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. “It’s not just about height. She’s got lots of great things.”
Bouchard, a former world No 5, describes Halep as “an aggressive wall” and admires the Romanian’s ability to turn defence into attack.
“I remember watching the French Open final this past year and I was inspired by that because she can get to every ball and also do something with it,” said Bouchard. “And sometimes I think when she’s pulled wide, she almost hits better shots. That’s something I noticed playing against her from experience.”
Halep, 27, won that aforementioned French Open final against Sloane Stephens to lift her maiden grand slam trophy.
It was a long-awaited triumph that consolidated her status at the top of the rankings. Halep ended 2018 as the year-end No 1 for a second consecutive season – a feat she considers to be her proudest career moment so far.
Her reign came to a halt last month, though, when she was dethroned by Australian Open winner Naomi Osaka in January.
Fresh from a final appearance in Doha last week, Halep arrives in Dubai at No 2, looking to add a second title in the Emirates to go with the one she claimed in 2015.
For the moment, she is the hunter, rather than the hunted, and she struggles to answer when asked which position spurs her on most.
"Well, that's a tough question but it's a good question. I think I like both things," Halep told The National ahead of the start of her Dubai campaign.
“I like to hunt because it’s my personality to go after it, to go for it. And also to be hunted because you raise your level and you’re getting better.”
Vacating the top spot is not the only change Halep has experienced recently. Following a career-best 2018 season, she parted ways with her coach Darren Cahill, so he would be able to spend more time with his family.
The Halep-Cahill partnership lasted nearly four years and took the Romanian to incredible heights. The pair forged a special connection, and Halep knows that her next coach will have big shoes to fill.
A one-week trial with David Goffin’s former coach, Thierry van Cleemput, in Doha last week did not materialise into a permanent contract for the Belgian, and Halep will be flying solo for now as she continues her search for a suitable replacement for Cahill.
“It’s been a special relation with Darren, four years of great work and the best results I could ever have. I had a trial week with the new coach and we decided to stop because we were not a good fit together and it’s just like that, so here I’m alone and now I’m without a coach,” Halep said.
“It’s not easy but it’s also nice. I have a little bit of a freedom feeling. But I have my team, they are always close to me, supporting me, so I don’t feel alone.”
The coaching carousel on the WTA tour is always spinning, and all three reigning grand slam champions have split with their coaches since winning their last major.
Besides Halep and Cahill, Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber bid farewell to Wim Fissette, and more recently, Osaka fired Sascha Bajin after winning in Melbourne last month.
Halep knows what she is looking for in her next coach but acknowledges that it might be a while before she finds the right person to join her team.
“To get used to the person, to get to know the person and to have the chemistry of a coach-player. So it’s not easy, and after such a long time with one coach it’s a little bit difficult to change and that’s why now I decided to stay by myself,” she said.
Having ticked many boxes off of her bucket list last year, Halep is taking a more relaxed approach to the upcoming chapter of her career. Her main goals for 2019 are to win the Fed Cup with Romania and clinch the Rome title for the first time, after falling short in the final the last two years.
Revamped plans for the men’s Davis Cup - led by Barcelona footballer Gerard Pique - might soon reach the women’s Fed Cup, with the possibility of staging both Finals together at a neutral venue in the future. Halep is against such changes that would rid the competition of its home and away ties.
“No I would keep the Fed Cup as it is now because I like the spirit, for me it’s an unbelievable week when I go to play for my country. The system is made like this. So I would keep it and I hope they don’t change it until I retire,” she said.
A player who is practically incapable of hiding her emotions, Halep has established herself as one of the most popular players on the WTA Tour with fans as they have gone through the ups and downs of the last few years with her.
They felt her anguish when she lost the French Open final in 2017 after leading Jelena Ostapenko by a set and a break.
They felt her pain when she battled through a brutal two weeks on an injured ankle at the Australian Open in 2018, where she lost the final to Caroline Wozniacki. And they shared her joy when she lifted the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen in Paris last June.
Halep’s most compelling trait is that she knows it’s going to be a bumpy road but she will make sure to take you along for the ride.
“I’m pretty chilled now, I just want to enjoy life more and just trying to get better day by day, that’s the main goal,” she added.
Asked what were the biggest lessons learned from the years gone by, she replied: “Not giving up a single ball, which I did this period and it made me happier and more confident.”
Hailed by her peers as arguably the most consistent performer on tour, Halep has reached a point where she feels mentally strong enough to deal with such rigorous schedules and making deep runs at many tournaments.
“I feel good. I don’t see that I lose energy being consistent. I feel that if I take care of my body and if I take good decisions about the schedule and about preparations, it’s the perfect fit," she said. "So I’m feeling good, I still feel young, even though I’m 27. But I still have a few more years ahead so I will enjoy them."
Halep says she hopes to send a message of “joy” through her tennis and would like people to see that she “really loves the sport”.
Looking ahead to the young woman who leapfrogged her in the rankings, Halep is impressed by what Osaka has managed to achieve, winning back-to-back grand slams at age 21.
“She’s a very strong player, she’s young and she’s powerful as well, so she has a strong mental. I really appreciate her and admire her for what she has done. It’s really good and I think she’s going to win more,” said Halep of the Japanese star.