On her fourth try, Halep becomes No. 1

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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.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCaBIVVpHjq6j3tSyxwTE-8Q

Halep, like Pliskova (and Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Jankovic before them), ascended to the top spot before winning her first major title.

A bumpy road straightens out in Beijing

For Halep, older than all but Kerber, it was a long time coming.

Three times over the last four months, Halep was one victory away from claiming the top spot. The first three opportunities – in the French Open final against Ostapenko, at Wimbledon, and in Cincinnati – hadn’t gone well.

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.

Halep
Coach Anabel Medina Garrigues came out when Ostapenko was down a break in the second set, remind her of Halep’s “situation” and telling her to stay with her. She won eight straight points after that. But Halep was able to kill the momentum and go on to victory. (Screenshot: WTA.TV)

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.”

It took a few turning points.

The first may well have come when a frustrated Cahill briefly said goodbye after Miami.

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.

Halep
Halep looked slightly nauseous before she went out to serve for the match and the No. 1 ranking. But she did it with aplomb. (Screenshot: WTA.TV)

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.

Halep
The various suits came out for a photo op with the new No. 1 after the win. A nice touch would have been to add the members of Halep’s team on hand. (Screenshot: WTA.TV)

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.

Garbiñe Muguruza, who was supplanted with the Halep victory, ascended to the No. 1 spot after her fourth-round exit from the US Open when Karolina Pliskova failed to defend her finalist points from the previous year with a loss in the quarterfinals a few days later.

Pliskova became No. 1 on the second Tuesday at Wimbledon when Johanna Konta defeated Halep in the quarterfinals. Pliskova had gone out in the second round.

Angelique Kerber became No. 1 again last March when Serena Williams withdrew from Indian Wells and Miami, citing “bad knees that didn’t allow her to train.” Of course, it turns out there was a much better reason.

A year ago at the US Open, Kerber became No. 1 for the first time after Pliskova defeated Williams in the semifinal – before Kerber even took to the court for her own.

This time, it all came together as one.

One more step for Halep

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.

(All screenshots from WTA.TV)

US Open pics: Bouchard and Pliskova

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NEW YORK – We rarely keep track of the score in practice sets. The hope is that players might actually be working on tactical things, and not concerning themselves about the scoreboard.

(That doesn’t happen in the few days before a Grand Slam, of course. They’re just playing. Or, you know, every often. But hope springs eternal).

But we’ll note here that Canadian Eugenie Bouchard had her way with Karolina Pliskova during a 45-minute hit Saturday at the US Open.

Every little bit of confidence helps, right? Bouchard – even when she was winning a lot of actual tennis matches – rarely came out on the good end of practice sets against other players.

The practice might have been better attended except for the fact that it was nowhere to be found on the posted practice schedule. Still, some fans found it.

And Bouchard was more in demand for autographs then the top-ranked player in the world afterwards. That’s the bizarre world she inhabits, still, even as her ranking dropped two spots to No. 76 on Sunday.

She sits between Veronica Cepede Royg of Paraguay and Francesca Schiavone, for whom this is likely to be the final US Open.

Here’s what they looked like out on a back court, with the workers taking down all the banners from the just completed Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day activities as they hit.

Halep to try again for top ranking

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Will Simona Halep be third time lucky on Sunday?

Already this year, the 25-year-old Romanian has had two opportunities to reach the elusive No. 1 singles ranking on the WTA Tour. But she couldn’t get it done.

If she defeats Garbiñe Muguruza in the Cincinnati final, she’ll finally do it.

“It’s the third time. It is either lucky or is just an experience again. So we will see,” Halep said after defeating wild card Sloane Stephens in the semifinal Saturday.

At the French Open, just a few games away from defeating unseeded Jelena Ostapenko in the final and taking over top spot, she faltered. At Wimbledon, she was just two points away against Johanna Konta in the quarterfinals. But she faltered again.

Surprisingly, Halep and Muguruza have not met in more than two years, since Stuttgart, on indoor clay in 2015.

“I want to win it. “So if it’s gonna be just to win a match and to get it, it’s going to be more special and nicer for me. Everyone can get to No. 1 now. The ranking is close. So depends on anyone,” she told the media in Cincinnati. “But I am so close. I really want it. So we will see.”

Fresh slate at the top

If Halep gets it done, it will complete an astonishing – and likely unprecedented  – week in which every single one of the No. 1 rankings in tennis will change hands.

Rafael Nadal is assured to be the new No. 1 on the men’s singles side. Finland’s Henri Kontinen will be No. 1 in men’s doubles. And Lucie Safarova will be the new woman atop the women’s doubles ranking on Monday.

Five possibilities, down to one

Karolina Pliskova, taking over for Angelique Kerber, had been No. 1 for the last month.

It certainly seems as though tennis karma is dictating that Halep join the club.

Nadal (last in 2014) and Kontinen (for many weeks this season) have been No. 1 before. For Safarova (and Halep) it will be the first time.

Halep

At the beginning of the week, there were five WTA Tour players with the potential to end up in the top spot, depending on results in Cincinnati.

But a lot of things had to fall into place. Most of the scenarios involved the current No. 1 Pliskova losing early; Halep was the most likely possibility, if Pliskova didn’t hold onto the spot. She basically had to go two rounds further than Pliskova.

The Czech righthander lost in the in the semis to Muguruza. So for Halep, that now means winning the tournament. 

But if she doesn’t, she will find herself just five points behind Pliskova, in the No. 2 spot. If it doesn’t happen Sunday, it surely will happen at the US Open, right?

Halep has quarterfinalist points to defend (430) in New York. But Pliskova lost to Kerber in the final (1,300 points). And the other contenders will continue to have a say.

Kerber is dropping

Speaking of Kerber, who spent 14 weeks at No. 1 this year, she will fall all the way to No. 6 after the Cincinnati tournament. With those 2,000 points for winning the US Open hanging over her ranking, she may fall further.

This, it seems, is what parity looks like.

But for some reason, neither Halep nor Pliskova is getting the same kind of criticism that other former No. 1s – Wozniacki, Jelena Jankovic and Amélie Mauresmo, to name three – received for acceding to the top spot without having a Grand Slam title on their resumé.

Karolina Pliskova the new WTA No. 1

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WIMBLEDON – When the women’s singles draw was made at Wimbledon last Friday, there were five women who theoretically could be ranked No. 1 on the WTA tour at the end of the fortnight.

Karolina Pliskova, wherever she is right now, is the last one standing.

The moment Great Britain’s Johanna Konta defeated Simona Halep in their quarterfinal Tuesday, the 25-year-old Czech became the 23rd woman to hold the No. 1 ranking on the WTA Tour.

She will officially take over the crown – which has proven a rather weighty one in recent years when Serena Williams hasn’t been wearing it – on Monday.

If it seems as if Pliskova backed into it, perhaps she did. The storybook ending would be to win Wimbledon, and become No. 1. Instead, she was upset in the second round by Magdalena Rybarikova of Slovakia.

But any time you accomplish something like that, the rest are just details.

Pliskova is the first Czech woman to be ranked No. 1. When Czech-born Martina Navratilova first got to the top of the rankings right around this time in 1978, she was already representing the U.S.

The accolade comes halfway through a season during which the only consistent thing on the WTA Tour was … inconsistency.

Amidst all that, Pliskova has had a very solid season. That’s evidenced by the fact that she’s currently atop the leaderboard in the race to the WTA Tour Finals in Singapore in October.

Over the last 52 weeks (which are the results on the computer at any one time that determine the current rankings), Pliskova has won four titles. She has made two Grand Slam semi-finals, and has nine victories over other top-10 players.

No. 1 without a major

The fact that she has made it without yet winning a major title has become, if not commonplace, no longer rare. Players like Jelena Jankovic, Caroline Wozniacki and Amélie Mauresmo (who later erased that blemish on her resumé) have done it before her.

Pliskova
A lot had to happen for Caroline Wozniacki to take over No. 1 after Wimbledon. None of it did, but just to be in the conversation again is big after her dip in form of recent years. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

When the draw came out, Elina Svitolina and Caroline Wozniacki both had a slight shot at being No. 1 at the end of Wimbledon.

But they would have had to win their first major title, for one thing.

Once Pliskova won the warmup tournament in Eastbourne the day after the Wimbledon draw, those two were eliminated from contention. 

Kerber had a shot at staying No. 1. But she had to reach the Wimbledon final. She lost a tough one to Garbiñe Muguruza on Manic Monday.

And then, there were two.

Halep’s destiny in her own hands

Halep has Wimbledon quarterfinal ranking points as well as the points she won from winning Bucharest right after Wimbledon a year ago dropping off the computer on Monday. Still, she needed “only” to reach the semi-finals here to finally get to No. 1. And she gave it everything she had, but went down to Konta Tuesday evening. 

battle

It’s the second consecutive top-spot disappointment for Halep. At the French Open, she would have become No. 1 had she defeated Jelena Ostapenko and won the title.

That would have been the perfect storybook ending – winning your first major title, and earning the No. 1 spot at the same time. 

Halep was two points from beating Konta and finally doing it Tuesday. It wouldn’t have mattered if she got no further in the tournament; she would have left London with the No. 1 ranking.

The Romanian must be questioning a whole lot of things, at the moment.

It seems the weight of trying to grab that crown might be almost as significant as wearing it.

The dethroned Kerber has spent a total of 34 weeks at No. 1, not all of them consecutive. That’s the 12th-most of the 23 No. 1s in history.

It’s more than Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams combined, as amazing as that may seem. And she may well be back before too long to add to it.

Battle for WTA No. 1 is on

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ROLAND GARROS – It’s been a long time since a battle for No. 1 on the women’s circuit didn’t involve someone named Serena.

But at long last, in Williams’ absence, there are challengers to the spot that for a couple of years has belonged to the consistent Angelique Kerber.

It’s not that Kerber hasn’t fully deserved to be ranked No. 1. The computer doesn’t lie. But if Williams – inarguably the best female player on the planet – isn’t going to be there, there should at least be a knockdown, drag out battle to replace her.

So far, that hasn’t happened. It’s as though it took the pressure off for Williams to be around, because there was no downside to not being able to overtake her. But as Williams played very little in 2016, and even less in 2017, the opening has been there. 

Kerber has been the only one so far to step up and take it.

As of Thursday, though, the battle is on. If Karolina Pliskova defeats Simona Halep to reach her first French Open final, she will be the new No. 1 next Monday.

If Halep beats her, and goes on to win the title, she would become No. 1.

Kerber helped make all this possible by going down in the first round to Ekaterina Makarova in Paris. That, and other recent early exits, dropped her once unassailable points total to being within reach of the rest.

How will that No. 1 pressure affect this semi-final? We’ll soon find out.

The other women’s semifinal Thursday will see No. 30 seed Timea Bascinszky take on unseeded Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia. That’s the birthday matchup; Bacsinszky turns 28 on the day, while Ostapenko turns 20.

“Coming into this tournament, there were a few people who told me, you have to be in the final to be No. 1. I was, like, there is no chance I make final here,” Pliskova said after her quarterfinal win over Caroline Garcia of France Wednesday.

Pliskova was not unaware of the stakes, though. She also was aware that the same prize is also at stake for her opponent.

“Now it’s close, but it’s close and it’s far, as well, because I’m playing against somebody who I would say one of the best girls on clay,” she said. “It’s not like you’re going to get it for free, you know. She’s playing also for being world No. 1, what I know, I think.”

Mommy Serena: your new No. 1

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It’s a temporary anomaly, the result of a 52-week ranking system that rewards big performances and lets them hang around awhile.

But today, April 24, 2017, Serena Williams is once again is the No. 1-ranked player on the WTA Tour.

The 35-year-old, who announced (sort of) that she is expecting her first child with fiancé Alexis Ohanian last week, hasn’t played since the Australian Open in January. Obviously, she won’t play any more this season.

Current No. 2 Angelique Kerber of Germany had the ranking points from her title a year ago in Stuttgart fall off the computer Monday. She will earn at least some of them back as the Stuttgart tournament is played this week.

After a first-round bye in the 28-player draw, the 29-year-old will re-take the top spot – if she wins two matches and reaches the semi-finals.

Don’t we all Google search “My name number one” from time to time? Serena knows what’s going down. (Snapchat)

If she doesn’t do it this week, Kerber is perfectly positioned to do it during the rest of the clay-court season. A year ago, she lost to Barbora Strycova in the first round of Madrid, Eugenie Bouchard in the first round in Rome, and Kiki Bertens in the first round at the French Open.

Anything she does will improve on that, and should give her a nice cushion before she has to defend her 2016 Wimbledon final.

Is anyone else even close?

The next player in line is Karolina Pliskova, but she’s nearly 1,000 points behind Kerber. The 25-year-old Czech has room to move during the clay-court season, but she is defending more than 650 points during the grass-court swing.

After that? Dominika Cibulkova (no. 4) and Simona Halep (No. 5) are another 1,000 points behind. Halep posted big results last spring and summer, including victories at both Madrid and Montreal. That’s nearly 2,000 points right there, in two events, that she must defend just to stay where she is. Because of that, the Romanian is an unlikely candidate to make a move.

Cibulkova, who withdrew from Stuttgart with an injury sustained in practice, also has significant results from 2016 to match: a final in Madrid, a win at Eastbourne on grass, a quarter-final at Wimbledon.

One horse race, for now

What we’re saying is that, for the foreseeable future, Kerber will have a lock on the top spot.

With the best female player in the world now officially on the “inactive list”, the best thing that could happen in the women’s game would be a dogged battle for the No. 1 spot she is vacating. That won’t happen.

No doubt the WTA Tour will try its best to promote its next generation of players. Good luck in that quest. In practical terms, the narrative queue is ready and waiting for the returns of two former champions with motivation to burn: Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka.

There’s no way either will challenge for No. 1. But they will supply the most compelling storylines over the next few months – unless someone really steps up.