Simona Halep grew up admiring Amelie Mauresmo, Maria Sharapova and Kim Clijsters, which makes the 27-year-old Romanian especially proud that she has led the world rankings for more weeks than her French, Russian and Belgian predecessors were able to achieve.
The Women’s Tennis Association announced on Monday that Halep has secured the 2018 year-end world No 1 singles ranking, presented by Dubai Duty Free, for the second season in a row. Having already topped the list for 50 weeks, the French Open champion cannot be caught until January at the earliest, by which time only nine other players will have been world No 1 for longer.
Mauresmo (39 weeks), Sharapova (21 weeks) and Clijsters (20 weeks) are among those who have been left in Halep’s wake. “These girls were my idols and my role models,” Halep said in Moscow, where she is due to compete in this week’s Kremlin Cup. “They inspired me all the time. So to be up there means a lot and gives me confidence that I was able to do something huge in tennis. It makes me proud.”
Apart from a four-week spell at the start of this year when she was briefly overhauled by Caroline Wozniacki, Halep has kept hold of the world No 1 ranking ever since she went top early in October last year. The world No 1 ranking changed hands seven times in 2017, but nobody has been able to match Halep’s consistency this year.
She played in two Grand Slam finals – after losing to Wozniacki in Melbourne she beat Sloane Stephens in Paris – and won WTA titles in Shenzhen and Montreal. “I felt like I was very consistent and very strong, both mentally and physically,” Halep said.
Halep said that staying at No 1 had been just as hard as reaching the top. “I had many attempts to become No 1 and it was really tough mentally to keep believing that it would happen one day, but then it was really tough to stay there because I felt the pressure at every tournament,” she said.
“Personally I didn’t think about it that much, but people around me were talking about it a lot and it was impossible not to hear them. Then you have to be at your highest level every week to keep your place at No 1.”
Halep has secured the year-end No 1 spot despite having not won a match since the middle of August. She has been suffering with a herniated disc in her back and retired hurt during her last match in Beijing a fortnight ago.
She has a first-round bye in Moscow, but has yet to decide whether she is fit enough to play. She is particularly keen to do so because the year-ending WTA Finals in Singapore start in six days’ time.
No other player has shown the level of consistency that Halep has managed this season ( AFP/Getty)
“I’m doing physio to try to make [my back] stronger, but I haven’t practised 100 per cent yet,” she said. “If I can’t play here I’m very doubtful that I will be able to play in Singapore because it’s so soon. I don’t know now, but for sure I will take a decision for my health first.”
Halep has been having physiotherapy and has been doing lower back exercises. “I do that for about one and a half hours a day,” she said. “I’ve worked really hard and I feel better, but during matches it’s tough because you can’t control every movement.”
The world No 1 said recent weeks had been “very stressful” because of the injury. “I’ve been worried every day because every morning I was waiting to see how I felt when I woke up,” she said.
In such circumstances some players might have ended their season early, but Halep said she had been determined to push herself to the limit. “I really want to keep playing,” she said. “I’m No 1 for the rest of the year. I’ve won a Grand Slam. I don’t have reasons to keep playing, except that I just don’t want to give up.”
Halep hopes to compete in Moscow in an effort to be fit for the WTA finals next week (Getty)
Halep is the only player who has qualified for the WTA Finals every year since the event moved to Singapore in 2014. She was runner-up on her debut but has since failed to progress beyond the group stage. She admits that she often struggles to maintain her form through to the end of the season.
“It’s really difficult,” Halep said. “I feel it every year and to be honest I feel it more and more. I give everything I have in the first part of the year and then it’s difficult.
“If I qualify for the Finals in future years my goal is to be better and ready to play the tournament. At this time of the year I think mentally I just have no more energy. I’m also sometimes injured. I think everyone feels a little bit empty when we get to this point.”
Eloquent and intelligent, Halep has been an excellent ambassador as world No 1. She is also not afraid to voice her opinions. For example, she has particular views on on-court coaching, which became a major talking point at the US Open last month after Serena Williams was punished because her coach was trying to coach her from the sidelines. On-court coaching is not allowed at the Grand Slam tournaments, while at WTA events a player can call her coach on to the court once during each set.
“If we are going have on-court coaching I feel like it should be all the time [and not just once per set],” Halep said. “The other option is to stop having on-court coaching anywhere. In my opinion it’s better to be alone out there, having to decide on your tactics during the matches. I would prefer it if it was just me and my opponent having to solve the problems out there on the court.”
Halep was forced to retire with a back injury during her first round match against Ons Jabeur in the China Open (AP)
Halep also supports moves to help returning mothers. Under present rules mothers can use a “protected” world ranking – which reflects where they were ranked before they took a break – to enter tournaments, but the ranking is not used to determine seedings. Williams, for example, played in the French Open this year thanks to her protected world ranking but was unseeded.
“To give birth is the most beautiful thing in the world,” Halep said. “It has to be [considered] very different to an injury or anything else. I feel like mothers should have a special place when they come back.”