Simona Halep: Bittersweet off-season for popular world No. 1

CNN  — 

For someone who says she is usually asleep by 10 p.m., Simona Halep pushed past her bedtime during tennis’ off-season.

The Romanian threw a private bash for 110 family and friends at a Bucharest restaurant in celebration of her long-awaited, maiden grand slam title at the French Open in June and partied until the small hours.

“I celebrated until 5 a.m. actually for the first time in my life,” Halep told CNN by phone ahead of the Australian Open.

Her time away from the tennis court wasn’t restricted, either, to that one evening in the Romanian capital, where the world No. 1 has an apartment.

“I spent a lot of time in the city, which I don’t do very often,” Halep said. “I lived a normal life, which I enjoyed a lot. I met new people, stayed with friends.”

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Split with coach

But Halep wasn’t fully able to bask in the glory of becoming her tennis-mad country’s first grand slam champion since her manager, Virginia Ruzici, 40 years earlier at Roland Garros.

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The extra leisure time came because the 27-year-old was recovering from a herniated disc. Indeed, like her fellow gritty counterpunchers Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, Halep had to cut short her 2018 campaign because of injury.

And in another, perhaps bigger blow, her influential coach Darren Cahill initiated a split because he wanted to spend more time with his family.

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‘No expectations’

“It was a little bit tougher,” Halep acknowledged, referring to the off-season.

No wonder, then, that Halep didn’t sound as confident as 12 months ago entering the Australian Open, which starts Monday. She is still waiting for a first win since August after being downed 6-4 6-4 by Ashleigh Barty in her 2019 opener in Sydney Wednesday.

And in the first round at the Australian Open, Halep faces the player who beat her in the first round at the US Open, Kaia Kanepi.

“I have no expectations, so I come different to last year, but still I’m motivated to give my best every time I step on the court and believe I have a chance to do a good result, but we will see,” said Halep, speaking before her outing against Barty. “It’s really tough to talk about this long period I had to rest.”

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Boris Becker?

It was during her three-and-a-half year partnership with Cahill that Halep said she hoped the highly respected Australian – a former coach of Hall of Famer Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt – would be in her corner until retirement.

They remain friends and Halep said he gave her advice in the off-season.

With Cahill continuing to work as an analyst for ESPN television at the Australian Open, who knows, he might give Halep more pointers.

For the most part, she intends on flying solo at least until the clay-court swing in April.

“I need a coach. But for the moment I just say that I want to take the responsibility to see how it is going to be, the next three, four months,” said Halep.

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There were “many” who expressed an interest in succeeding Cahill, according to Halep. The Constanta native denied reports, though, that one of them was Novak Djokovic’s former coach, Boris Becker.

“He came for a different reason in Bucharest and I was happy to see him, but we never talked about being together as a coach and player,” said Halep.

When Halep refers to a “tough, emotional year,” the exit to Kanepi and her sojourn to the Australian Open final figure to be in the equation, too.

Homecoming crowds

Halep needed to be hospitalized after suffering from dehydration in the gripping Australian Open final in which she led Caroline Wozniacki by a break deep in the third set before losing 2-1.

Even before then, the Romanian rolled her ankle in the first round and featured in marathon encounters against Lauren Davis in the third round and Angelique Kerber in the semifinals, when a combined five match points were saved en route to victory.

Her path to the French Open final was simpler, a mere one-set surrendered.

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Once there, however, Halep trailed 2017 US Open winner Sloane Stephens by a set and break. Just when it seemed Halep would lose a fourth grand slam final, she turned the tables.

About 20,000 fans greeted Halep at Romania’s national football stadium when she returned home, a smaller replica of the French Open trophy in tow.

She keeps the silverware at home, though might give it to her parents Stere and Tania once her playing days are over. Halep said she gets in touch with her parents every day when on the road without them. Texting, she says, is her preferred means of communicating.

“They are good people with good hearts, and my mom is a little bit shy, as I am,” said Halep. “My dad is different, so they complete each other and I took I think more from my mom’s character, and the body and the (tendency) for sport from my dad.”

‘Embrace it’

Already a likable figure prior to the French Open success – she has been voted the WTA’s fan favorite the past two seasons – her popularity has grown further. In Romania last year, Halep, who also picked up the WTA’s shot of the year award, was the most Googled person.

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Being a superstar recognized on the streets is still something she comes to terms with.

“When you have success, you also have to pay some things so it’s great I have to pay this,” she said with a laugh. “It’s not that comfortable or that easy but it’s the best thing that could happen to myself, so I am trying to embrace it, accept it, and enjoy it.”

Halep certainly enjoyed that party and will hope to enjoy what happens on court, too.