February 17, 2014

In the Big Leagues Now

I've been waiting a long time for Simona Halep to really graduate from the Juniors and make a splash in the WTA. It took longer than I expected, in some respects -- at twenty-two years of age she's far out-aged the likes of Jennifer Capriati and Martina Hingis, who were winning Majors in their teens -- but after a year spent climbing the rankings and honing her game, she's finally scored a title worthy of her talent and broken into single digits. And with the performances she's shown, not just this past week in Doha, but over the last twelve months, it seems she might stay here for some time.

The one-time girls' champion at Roland Garros originally had her biggest successes on clay, reaching the Fes final two years in a row, in 2010 as a qualifier, and then beating -- get ready for this! -- Daniela Hantuchova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Roberta Vinci, Jelena Jankovic and Agnieszka Radwanska on her way to the Rome semis last year. When she finally did capture that first trophy just after the French Open, it was, not surprisingly, on the dirt as well. But she'd shown signs of her diversity too -- she put up a huge fight against Jankovic in New York way back in 2010 and reached the third round of both Indian Wells and Miami two years later. And once she broke the championship seal in Nürnberg, she went crazy on every surface -- the grass of Den Bosch, the hard courts of New Haven -- and closed out the season with her first six Big Girl titles. And she never let anyone else do the dirty work -- victims of her breakthrough 2013 run also included the likes of Caroline Wozniacki, Sam Stosur and Ana Ivanovic, to name a few more.

Still Halep was on the outskirts of the elite, claiming only mid-tier titles and never making a big dent at a Slam. That changed this year however when, ranked just outside the top ten, she finally cracked the second week at the Australian Open, but fell disappointingly short of making the semis.

She seems to have rebounded just fine, though.

She only claimed the seventh seed in Doha, a premier event in which more than half of the sixteen seeds had played in or won a total of fourteen Grand Slam finals. And the rest of the field was primed as well. Halep was pushed early by Kaia Kanepi, dropping the middle set and needing a tiebreak to close out the match. But she rolled over fellow clay court specialist Sara Errani in the quarters and then pulled out another straight-set win over world #4 Aga Radwanska. She was still the underdog against Angelique, a player she hadn't faced since an ITF event all the way back in 2009. But this time again Halep had the upper hand -- in a match that lasted just over an hour, she broke the German four times and won a solid seventy-three percent of her first serves. In two quick sets, she had claimed her seventh and biggest crown and climbed to a career high #9 ranking.

Halep's victory this weekend certainly cements her place among the top stars of the sport, and should put everyone on notice for the damage she can cause. But as the newest inductee to the upper echelons, she still has a lot of work to do. In spite of all the impressive scalps on her resume, she still hasn't notched a victory over Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka or Maria Sharapova. That's not to say she won't eventually, or even soon -- she's in Serena's half of this week's Dubai draw -- but the pressure will only get higher from here.

After all now that Halep's made it to the Big Leagues, she'll have to prove she belongs.

No comments: