She’s the fifth WTA Tour player to hit the top spot this season after Serena Williams, Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova and Garbiñe Muguruza.
With the top four separated by about 700 points, and with all the points on offer at the year-end championships in Singapore, there is every change the group may be shuffled a bit before the 2017 season is said and done.
She’s the first Romanian woman to hold the top spot, and the 25th in the history of the WTA Tour rankings.
In another milestone effort, France’s Caroline Garcia jumps into the top 10 for the first time in her career. And, according to many, it’s long overdue given her talent level.
Garcia put in yeoman’s work in winning the Premier 5 event in Wuhan two weeks ago, and backing it up with a win in the Premier Mandatory tournament in Beijing last week.
On the Upswing
Caroline Garcia (FRA): No. 15 —————> No. 9 (the best two weeks of her career, and a well-deserved jump into the top 10 for the first time)
There’s one spot left in the singles for Singapore. And it’s Caroline Garcia’s to win and Johanna Konta’s to lose. Garcia, due to play in Tianjin this week, begged off after her busy Asian swing. Konta, who pulled out of Hong Kong, has the Moscow Premier next week to try to nail it down.
The tournament has said it won’t give Garcia a wild card, preferring to dispense them to Russian players.
Canadian Gabriela Dabrowski and Chinese partner Yifan Xu, along with veteran duo Anna-Lena Groenefeld of Germany and Kveta Peschke of the Czech Republic (who is 42!) qualify for Singapore.
There is spot left, which likely will go to Maria José Martínez Sánchez and Andreja Klepac.
Simona Halep would have been forgiven if her reaction after beating Jelena Ostapenko Saturday in Beijing were one of relief.
Instead, it was pure joy.
Okay, maybe there was a little relief mixed in there somewhere.
The momentous victory meant that on Monday, the 26-year-old Romanian officially will become the No. 1 ranked player on the WTA Tour, for the first time in her career.
She will be the first Romanian, and the 25th in the history of the WTA Tour, to rise to the top spot. She also will be the fourth in less than six months. Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova and Garbiñe Muguruza have all owned the top spot since March.
This time, she somehow put aside the accumulated pressure, the nerves, and the failures. She went to the line, and served it out as though it were the first set in her first-round match.
Even if she admitted her legs were shaking before that last point.
“I still say the toughest moment on court was the French Open final. It was the first opportunity to be No.1 and to win the first Grand Slam. I was devastated after that match. Then I just kept working. I said it’s going to happen one day, I just have to get on court and work harder, which I did,” Halep said afterwards, on a podcast on the WTA Tour website. “Darren (coach Darren Cahill) always told me that if you keep working you can do it. So today I did it after so many tough moments.”
That Halep is a good enough player and athlete to become No. 1 – especially in this era, when that top sport is so very much up for grabs – was rarely in question.
In a year of up-and-down results, of players reaching great heights only to stumble a few steps down the hill the following week, she was as capable as anyone.
But for her, compared to some, all the cylinders need to fire.
You just had to look over to the other side of the net Saturday to see Ostapenko. The 20-year-old from Latvia rode an insouciant confidence and the resultant ability to hit screaming winners to a French Open title.
That title came, as it happens, against the more well-rounded and experienced Halep.
For Ostapenko, the challenge will come when that confidence isn’t where it is now, and when opponents begin to figure out how to exploit the weaknesses in her game.
At times, Halep her own worst enemy
For Halep, the challenge so often has been to overcome herself.
Her humanizing self-doubt, a combination of cultural and personal, has meant that “her day”, as she referred to it on court Saturday, has only come at age 26.
“First place is the mental strength. The game I always had. I was there close many times, 2014 in Singapore. But the mental part I was not very close. This year for sure is the best way that I’ve been on court. The attitude now I’m happy about it. I’m not ashamed anymore,” she said on the WTA podcast. “I could not control my nerves, I could not control myself. And I was talking too bad to myself. I don’t deserve that because I’m working hard and I just have to appreciate myself more.”
The affable Aussie, who has coached a youngster (Lleyton Hewitt) and an oldster (Andre Agassi) to No. 1, had reaching a breaking point.
After the French Open, Halep said, she had a psychologist who made a difference. There also was another man, a Romanian, with whom she worked at home.
“I really want to thank them because they showed me what I need to improve and what I have to change to be better on court, which I did it and credit to them, she said.
And then, there was the match against Maria Sharapova at the US Open – a very tough first-round draw for both, and a win for Sharapova.
“After the match, I talked to Darren and he told me my serve was s**t and that’s why I lost the match. So I said okay, if that’s the only one thing I can improve to beat her, then I work for it,” she told the WTA.
Beefed up serve, lessons learned
Halep said she’s been out on the court hitting serves an hour a day. And the improved velocity this week in Beijing is the reward for all that work.
She crushed Sharapova 6-2, 6-2 in the third round.
But despite all the fuss made about it – one comparison was made to Rafael Nadal’s serving velocity when he won the US Open in 2010 –the serve wasn’t new territory.
We can recall a few years ago, when she first got on the top-player radar in 2014, that her serving velocity easily got up to the 105-107 mph range.
It was a matter of getting back to it, with the increased experience to be able to keep the velocity up without sacrificing location and consistency.
Back then, Halep already was a master at changing the direction of a hard-hit ball – taking a cross-court shot down the line with her backhand, more specifically.
Before that final game, Halep looked slightly nauseous. It’s hard to even fathom the thoughts that were rushing through her head.
But in those final points against Ostapenko, she showed all of those skills. She sent her younger scrambling from corner to corner until the Latvian was in positions from where it was impossible to pull the trigger. She hit big serves out wide to take control of the points. With one final forehand down the line, and a leap in the air, she had done it.
WTA on-court celebrations
The WTA Tour made a big to-do about the accomplishment immediately after the match.
They had CEO Steve Simon and president Mickey Lawler and all the tournament officials ready to trot out on the court for a photo opportunity. They had a beautiful No. 1 made of flowers ready – a tribute Halep hugged as if she didn’t want to let it go. They had the tribute video all prepared for the giant screens.
There was an element of potential jinx to all of that advance preparation. You wonder if Halep saw the WTA executives hanging around and knew exactly what they were there for.
But it was a rare moment when an accomplishment could be immediately and publicly celebrated.
First true No. 1 celebration of 2017
The other occasions over the last year when a player became No. 1 weren’t nearly as neat and tidy, tailor-made for an instant tribute.
But there’s no time to celebrate. Halep still has a job to do.
She will meet an in-form Caroline Garcia in the Beijing final Sunday to win her fourth Premier Mandatory-level title.
In the absence so far of a Grand Slam title on her resumé, Premier Mandatory titles are Halep’s biggest efforts to date.
On the other side of the net, another milestone is in the works.
Garcia, whose season began with some Fed Cup drama and more back woes, has been surging.
She won Wuhan (a Premier 5 event) last week. And she was able to keep the momentum going and the energy up during a grueling week in Beijing.
On the WTA Tour this year, that has been a rare ironwoman streak. That it comes so late in the season is even more impressive.
Garcia survived a three-hour, 21-minute marathon against Elina Svitolina in the quarterfinals Friday and backed it up with a straight-sets win over Petra Kvitova in Saturday’s semifinal.
Sunday will be Garcia’s fifth straight day on the courts. But the end goal is within reach: a win would put the Frenchwoman into position to earn the final singles qualifying spot in Singapore for the first time in her career.
At stake on Monday was a spot in the singles quarter-finals of their home Grand Slam. And it was Garcia, the recipient of so much criticism amid the public airing of some internal French Fed Cup dirty laundry, who had the last laugh.
Garcia defeated Cornet 6-2, 6-4 to reach her first career quarterfinal. It was also the first time Garcia had ever won a match on the main stadium court, Court Philippe-Chatrier.
That, combined with an extra-time, third-round win over Su-Wei Hsieh of Taipei that very easily could have gone the other way, may have have exorcised a few Roland Garros demons for the talented 23-year-old.
Just here for the handshake
If you were just there for the handshake, it far exceeded expectations. And that’s probably in part due to the graciousness of the loser, Cornet.
The bookmakers had 300-1 odds against the two exchanging kisses. And yet, it happened.
“I don’t know, I’m not the one to ask about how we got there, I don’t know. But it’s the truth!” Garcia said, laughing. “I’ll admit, it wasn’t really thought out. I was just so happy and everything. I shook her hand and after, I think I we kissed on the cheek. But it was natural.”
“I’m sure that everyone looked at this match to see how was it going to happen. Everyone was surprised, maybe it’s going to be a battle or whatever. But, I mean, I just tried to stay like a professional player. I play tennis because I enjoy it, and I don’t want to get any fight with anyone. What happen, happened. We never forget about it. Tennis is a game. I play to enjoy and that’s it,” Garcia added.
Cornet’s first reaction was that it was the coldest exchange of kisses she’d ever had. “But it was a kiss,” she laughed. “It’s a good point already, and I was actually also surprised. I was not expecting that she wanted to give me a kiss. And I liked it. I mean, it was good to finish on this note, you know, like I wouldn’t have liked like just a handshake, like very cold.
“I’m not this kind of person. I’m a very nice person. I don’t like the conflict. So I told her good luck, and I mean it,” she added.
On French television Tuesday, Cornet said she hoped all the drama was behind them.
“I said, ‘Bravo, Caro. and good luck.’ And gave her a bit of a shove in the shoulder. Let’s hope that said it all. I hope we move on, because there are worse things in life,” Cornet said. “Obviously I wish it were me (winning), but I’m sincerely happy for her. And I hope we can stop talking about it. It’s getting heavy, and people hear the about the controversy. It’s really not worth it.”
Asked about the cheek kisses, Cornet smiled and agreed. “La bise de la reconciliation!”
Solid French women’s content
It was the deepest into the French Open that two Frenchwomen had met in several decades.
And it also was the first time Cornet and Garcia had met at the WTA/Slam level. They have only played once, in 2010 at the Marseille ITF tournament (that actually is going on this week), when Garcia was 16 and Cornet, 20.
Garcia resolved before the French to keep her distance from the opinions of others – at least, as much as she could. “I say it, and I’ll repeat it, having people around you who support you, who cheer you, that’s great. But sometimes, people have bad intentions and when you’re a little fragile, it can really hurt,” she said.
Meanwhile, another Frenchwoman has her shot at making the semifinals Tuesday, as No. 13 seed Kristina Mladenovic takes on No. 30 seed Timea Bacsinszky of Switzerland.
Mladenovic’s doubles run with Svetlana Kuznetsova ended Monday with a 6-2, 6-4 loss to the No. 1 seeds, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova. She has spent more than nine hours on court in singles, plus the doubles, while Bacsinszky is significantly fresher.
So all the focus is on singles. But Mladenovic’s quest to do Garcia one better and make the semifinals is a challenging one against Bacsinszky, who was a semi-finalist here two years ago.
Garcia will take on No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic Wednesday, in her bid to do the same.
You want drama? The French Tennis Federation usually will oblige.
Unlike in North America, tennis is a huge sport in France. This is the federation that live-streamed a formal debate between the three main candidates for its presidency last February. The most entrenched old-guard candidate, Bernard Giudicelli, won the job.
The latest drama is the Fed Cup team, a dysfunctional mess at the moment. And it feels as though three team mainstays are ganging up on their quiet, introverted teammate.
It all began back in February when France’s then-top player, Caroline Garcia, skipped a first-round Fed Cup tie against Switzerland (France lost 3-2). She had already stated after the loss in the final last fall that she wouldn’t play in 2017, choosing to focus on producing better results at the Grand Slam tournaments.
After the loss, the outspoken Kristina Mladenovic (with whom Garcia won the French Open women’s doubles title last year) had her say.
“The adventure is more beautiful with real people, people who have values, people who are ready to die on the court and to not be selfish,” Mladenovic said.
Later, she claimed she wasn’t referring to Garcia but to a younger player who expressed an abject lack of interest in playing for France (at least while the team was a tight-knit family under former captain Amélie Mauresmo): 20-year-old Océane Dodin. Uh-huh …
That successful doubles partnership quickly was history.
After defeat, comes bureaucracy
It gets complicated and rather bureaucratic after that. The men of French tennis are bouncing la balle to each other, deciding what the women should do.
We harken back to a time not so long ago when former No. 1 Mauresmo was the captain, and her players were eager to give her their all. They knew that whatever went on, she’d have their backs.
On March 14, Guidicelli said, the registered letter to Garcia was returned unclaimed.
Let the boys handle it
The new president played middleman to open lines of communication between Garcia’s ubiquitous father/coach Louis-Paul and captain Noah. They spoke by telephone March 14 then a week or so later met in person at the Miami Open. After all the menfolk chatted and patted each other’s backs and got it all straightened out (men are good at this, they tell us), things got soap opera-esque in a hurry.
April 5: Louis-Paul Garcia thanked Giudicelli for creating a “climate of confidence and respect”, and helpfully supplied information about how other Fed Cup teams in other countries operated.
April 8: After France’s Davis Cup squad defeated Great Britain in Rouen, captain Noah told Giudicelli he wanted to select Garcia for the upcoming relegation tie against Spain (which, it should be noted, will be without both Garbiñe Muguruza and Carla Suárez Navarro). Among the reasons stated by Noah were Garcia’s solid performance at a tournament in Monterrey the previous week, the fact that she had entered tournaments following the Fed Cup (namely, Stuttgart the following week), and the fact that they needed her and because the other players wanted her on the team.
At the end of that day, Giudicelli left a voicemail for Louis-Paul Garcia informing him of the decision.
April 9: A voicemail message was left from Louis-Paul Garcia, telling Giudicelli the issue wasn’t whether his daughter wanted to play Fed Cup or not; that was never in question (this came as a surprise to Giudicelli, he said, given Garcia’s statement late in 2016).
The father/coach provided some medical information about Garcia’s back issues and concluded, armed with all the relevant data, that it was up to Giudicelli to decide if it would be useful to select her.
April 10: Giudicelli informed the players he was submitting the list of four nominations to the FFT’s executive committee: Garcia, Mladenovic, Alizé Cornet and Pauline Parmentier.
He added the message was read at 8:39 a.m. by Louis-Paul Garcia, and at 11:27 a.m. by Caroline Garcia.
At 10:11 p.m. that night, Garcia issued a release stating a “painful inflammation of the sciatic nerve” she had been dealing with since last summer’s US Open was forcing her to withdraw from Stuttgart and that she wouldn’t return to action until May. No mention was made of the Fed Cup selection.
Reaction from her teammates was swift, and coordinated.
Despite that release, the federation announced nominations the next morning and still included Garcia. The Fed Cup website still lists her. But she won’t play.
Giudicelli is now playing hardball with Garcia, saying that refusing the nomination will have the federation’s disputes committee ruling on sanctions.
The highhandedness in this case would be amusing if it weren’t so sad. Legislating patriotism is highly overrated. A caveat in this case is that French players receive major financial support from the federation as they make their way up the ranks. It’s fair enough there be some obligations in return.
L’Équipe’s Sophie Dorgan met with Garcia at home in Lyon earlier this week. The story in the newspaper’s Saturday edition reveals a young woman who said the last few months have been the worst of her career. “I’m learning the painful way; that’s not the way I would have wanted it. It’s a hurtful and disappointing period,” she said.
Garcia said she got the impression her teammates think she’s faking the injury, even though the federation physician went to Lyon Wednesday to confirm the sciatic nerve problem.
She’s an easy target. Very much dominated by her father/coach, Garcia’s top-10 talent has always been held back by her emotions and her struggle to handle them.
After the tie against Switzerland, she said what she had to say; the federation knew her intention was not to play this year.
“After that, I read and listened to what’s being said, but I don’t want to get into any controversies. I do my thing,” she said. “They said they understood my decision, that I’d done a lot for the French team, that they respected the fact that I wanted to take some time. They knew I had a back problem.
“Then I read in the press that Noah says ‘there’s no point in forcing a player if she doesn’t want to play.’ There are misunderstandings, obviously. Plenty of them,” she added.
“Others really like to be there and cheer. Me, that’s not really my thing. It’s not that I prefer being the centre of attention but if I don’t play … Team spirit, the group, that can be important but for me, not so much. … It’s more important for me to concentrate on my singles career rather than on Fed Cup, because I don’t play. I’m not the French No. 1 or No. 2, I’m No. 4.”
She has a point, sort of. But we’re getting the sense she won’t lead the next generation of French women’s tennis. Amandine Hesse, who was on the team against Switzerland in February, will fill that spot.
(Information for this piece was gathered from l’Équipe newspaper, Agence-France Presse, Tennis-Actu and other French-language sources. Translation of quotes are my own; if you want to know more, run the hyperlinks through Google Translate to get the gist; search for more stories. Or drop a comment on this piece via Twitter, Facebook or Instagram and I’ll do my best to answer!)