Simona Halep has been quite open about her love affair with the French Open. She dreamt of the crown on clay as a kid, did everything in her power to achieve that vision. Though the Romanian, with a feisty game best suited to the red dirt, was denied twice in the final, she claimed her prize on the third attempt in June last year.
Grass, however, has been somewhat of an acquired taste for Halep. It has demanded that she leave her comfort zone and risk more, attack more. On Thursday, Halep showed her more adventurous side to defeat first-time semi-finalist Elina Svitolina 6-1, 6-3 at Wimbledon. The 27-year-old thus became the first Romanian woman to ever make the final of the grasscourt Grand Slam.
"I have a lot of experience now, I'm more confident, I love grass " it's the first time when I say that," Halep had said after surviving a tough tussle against China's Shuai Zhang in the quarter-final.
"I started to feel more comfortable on the court. I didn't slide at all this tournament. It's a little bit dangerous when you play on grass because the feet are not really stable as they are on hard court or clay court, so that's why I prefer those surfaces. But now, I started to feel it. To have it in my hands, to have it in my legs and also in my mind, which is very important. Every time the ball comes to me I feel like I know what to do with it."
Halep, playing her second Wimbledon semi-final on Thursday, needed every bit of that confidence and a new-found love for grass to get out of trouble against Svitolina. The battle between the two baseline-huggers was expected to be a bruiser and it was quickly evident why. The first game lasted almost 10 minutes and 16 points, two of which were 23-shot rallies. Halep served two double faults and was stretched to five deuce points and three break points. In the next game, which was only a couple of minutes shorter, Halep set up her third break point by finishing off a 20-point rally at the net and taking a 2-0 lead.
Though the next two games went against serve, the Romanian was the one on the ascendancy. She didn't concede court to Svitolina, tried to stay the aggressor and finished off a few points by lasering the backhand down the line. Halep's aggression was rewarded as the Ukranian started to fade after that early tug-of-war. Though Svitolina tried to stay in the second set till 3-3, she couldn't hold on for too long. Halep rolled through the next three games to complete a 72-minute victory.
"It's an amazing feeling " one of the best moments of my life," she said right after coming off the court.
"It was not as easy as the score shows, because every game was very long and deep. I fought very hard to win this match; she's an amazing player, and is always tough to play. I played the right tactics, and I was very strong, both mentally and physically."
It was a well-rounded performance by the seventh seed Halep, who hit 26 winners and 10 unforced errors. She converted five of eight break points, saved four of five break points on her serve, didn't concede a single break point opportunity in the second set and won 54 percent of the return points for what was, in the end, a comfortable win.
While Halep has struggled to manage expectations after winning the 2018 French Open and taking over as the World No 1, this Wimbledon she has looked more ready to take charge and stay positive. Remember, this is a player whose coach, Darren Cahill in March 2017, had walked out on her because she was too "negative." A more confident, and she says "relaxed", player after her Roland Garros triumph, Halep has been more open to change and adding a sharper attacking edge to her rock-solid defensive game.
At Wimbledon, she has lost only one set en route the final: against countrywoman Mihaela Buzarnescu in the second round. In her last four matches, she was pitted against opponents who could potentially upset her: Victoria Azarenka, 15-year-old sensation Cori Gauff, Zhang and now Svitolina, but has come through with relative ease (save the first set against Zhang) and in straight sets.
Halep will need to believe in her game more than ever when she takes on Serena Williams in the final on Saturday. The American, gunning for a record-equalling 24th singles major, has won nine out of their 10 matches so far.
"I respect a lot what she has done and what she's doing," said Halep. "But now I feel stronger mentally facing her. It's just a big challenge for me."