PARIS: Simona Halep’s comeback to win her long-awaited first Grand Slam title at the French Open on Saturday (Sunday in Manila) was one of the most popular victories in recent memory.
The world number one had lost all three of her previous finals on the biggest stage, but showed incredible resolve to beat Sloane Stephens to complete her journey from 2008 Roland Garros junior champion to lifting the main trophy 10 years later.
The 26-year-old had said before the final that she “would be okay” if she lost again, as “no-one has died”.
That humble attitude has endeared Halep to the French crowds, and the spectators on Court Philippe Chatrier were firmly behind her on Saturday.
“The positive vibes from all the crowd was amazing, and I took it just for me,” she said. “I felt that everyone is for me, and I felt stronger on court.”
She is only the second Romanian woman to win a major and the first since Virginia Ruzici claimed the 1978 French Open, and her army of fans could still be heard chanting ‘Simona, Simona, Simona’ around Roland Garros two hours after the match.
Already a winner of 16 WTA titles before arriving in Paris, Halep had undoubtedly been one of the world’s best players for the last few years, and several of her fellow pros were quick to congratulate her latest achievement.
“For all the haters who said she’ll never win a Slam because she’s mentally weak, go choke on that,” tweeted Germany’s Andrea Petkovic.
The 26-year-old had suffered three agonising defeats when one set from glory at the majors, with last year’s loss in Paris after leading Jelena Ostapenko by a set and 3-0 perhaps the most painful.
Her third came earlier this year to another perennial underachiever on the biggest stage, Caroline Wozniacki, in a marathon match in sweltering conditions at Melbourne Park.
But she used those memories to her advantage on Saturday: “I said that last year (it) happened to me, same thing, I was set and a break up and I lost the match. So I said there is a chance to come back and win it.”
Halep first became world number one in August last year and has now spent 31 weeks in total at the top of the rankings.
Her triumph over Stephens made her the first player to win her first Grand Slam title while the world No. 1.
“The fact that I could be No. 1 in the world last year gave me confidence,” said Halep.
Already a massive star in her home country — Halep appeared on the front cover of Romania’s ‘Elle’ magazine in April and opened a restaurant called ‘SH’ in her hometown of Constanta —she will now go down in its sporting folklore.
“The fact that I was able to win maybe will give an inspiration also to Romanians, the kids, that it’s possible, even if you come from a little country, it’s possible if you work and if you believe.”
One of the main reasons why Halep had to wait so long to lift a major title is her relative lack of power when compared to the game’s other big stars.
But after seeing off one of the biggest hitters on tour in Garbine Muguruza in the semi-finals, she pointed out: “I’m fast, though, no?”
Her speed and fitness was key in the final, but her resolve shone through too.
Halep, who Sports Illustrated once described as an ‘anti-diva’, will now have her sights set on becoming the first Romanian woman to win multiple Grand Slam titles.