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.
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.
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.
Rogers Cup No. 2 seed Simona Halep obviously appreciates all the support she gets from the Romanian fans.
Everywhere she goes, there seems to be large, vocal group of supporters.
Even Canadian Bianca Andreescu, whose parents are Romanian, who who made her WTA Tour main-draw debut at the Citi Open last week, got the spillover. She said she couldn’t believe how much Romanian she heard spoken in the crowd during her matches.
But while appreciative, Halep asked the fans to tone it down a bit after her 6-1, 6-0 victory over Barbora Strycova Thursday in Toronto.
“I want to thank them. And I think I can say – is not a bad thing – but I think that they have to be a little bit more fair play with the opponent, because today was a little bit too much in my opinion,” she said.
Konta: “I guess to be in the semifinals of my home Slam, and to do that in front of a full Centre Court, I mean, it’s pretty, pretty special. I think the level of tennis that both of us played today, it was just a tremendous match. … I feel very happy with how I was able to maintain my level throughout the whole match, and really just tried to stick very closely to how I felt I wanted to play out there, and did that kind of through the thick and thin.”
Halep: “I think was a great tennis. Both of us played a good level. I was very close, again. In the tiebreak maybe I could serve better and stronger a little bit. Then in the third set, the serve game that I lost was a little bit tough to still believe that I can break her because she was serving pretty well. … I think everything was okay. Many positives from this match. And she played really well, so she deserves to win.”
 Venus Williams (USA) def.  Jelena Ostapenko (LAT)
Williams: “I know she had to be feeling confident. She played a great match. Not a lot of errors. I never played her. Watched her. Didn’t really know what to expect. The grass, of course, changes the game. So just a lot of factors. I was really happy to come out on top. … ”
Ostapenko: “She was playing good today. She was serving well. I think I didn’t start the match very well. I was missing a little bit. But, yeah, she was serving really well. It was very tough to break. Because of that I had more pressure because I had to keep my serve. … It was also a good match today for me. … I had kind of, like, some pressure because, as I said, she was serving really well today. She started the match good. She made a lot of aces. But, yeah, I was not, like, feeling nervous. I just couldn’t really play my best today.”
Muguruza: “I’m very happy and very pleased also with this match, because obviously Kuznetsova is a very tough opponent. We all know she has been and is a great player. I managed to play a good level during all the match. I earned the victory. … Before I was more emotional. You know, I was showing more emotions on the court. Now I’m trying to handle it better. I think that’s experience. Like I said before, the year I made final here, I felt like I was a completely different player. Now I maybe feel more solid mentally, going out there knowing what to do. I think it’s with experience and the years.”
Kuznetsova: “I think in the start I had some options on her serve. I had love-30, 15-40, couldn’t turn it around. Then I just lost silly break, quite fast one, the first set. Then it was again everything even. Second break in the second set, it’s pretty simple. But these small moments, small chances really matters a lot. I think Garbiñe recovered very good today. She defend very good.”
Rybarikova: ” I just recently played ITFs in Surbiton. I was thinking that I was nervous more there than today. I have no idea how come I was that calm. Obviously I was nervous, but I was not like I would shake. Sometimes I can get really nervous and really tight. But this match I was quite positive. I was saying to myself, if I’m not going to make this serve, I still can break her because I had a lot of chances before so I can still make. If not, then I have third set. I was still up. So you still have to believe. Somehow I was not nervous. But I don’t understand it quite well, but that happened. … Always some player who surprise. Now I was lucky to be me. Yeah, I’m really grateful for that.”
Vandeweghe: “That’s why Grand Slams are the hardest tournaments. They’re over two weeks and you have to play well for two weeks. … I think (Rybarikova is) playing the best tennis of her career right now. She’s won a lot of tournaments. And she’s playing really well. She’s in the semifinals.”
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.
A post shared by Karolina Pliskova (@karolinapliskova) on
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.
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.
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.
WIMBLEDON – Unlike the men on the ATP Tour, the top women don’t practice together nearly as much as they could – or should.
Why? Well, it’s partly a matter of non-necessity. There aren’t too many coaches on the men’s side who are still young and spry enough to practice with their players with any degree of usefulness. So the men need each other more.
Carlos Moyá, who coached Milos Raonic last year and now is with Rafael Nadal, is one obvious exception.
The number of former players of varying abilities in their 30s and 40s coaching female players greatly outdistances their counterparts on the men’s side.
So the top women most often choose to hit with the coaches, or with male hitting partners.
It’s lower maintenance. And they can spend all of the practice time working on the things they want to work on, without having to be concerned with whether the other player also is getting to work on what she needs to address.
If they can find guys who can hit flatter and mimic the groundstrokes in the women’s game, they’re in good shape. Often, though, especially with the serve, it’s hard for the men to duplicate.
Two top-10 women hit up
So when two top players do take the court together, and seem to have a really fun time while they do it, it’s a rare treat.
That was the case when Simona Halep and Svetlana Kuznetsova had their “championship hit” at Wimbledon, just before the tournament began.
Here’s what it looked like. The smiles are priceless.
It’s a tricky business, as it so often is with the women. There are some players (no, no names) who tend to treat a rival player as little more than a hitting partner on the practice court. The 411 on those players tends to get around pretty quickly.
Sometimes they’ll keep them waiting while they endlessly talk to their coaches. Or they won’t feed the ball as cooperatively as they should.
Most often, you’ll see the women sit on completely separate benches and not address a word in each other’s direction during a one-hour practice. (It happens on the men’s side, too, but not nearly as often).
That’s not all of them, of course. Some of the women are actually friends “in real life”. And some are friendly enough that they’ll at least pull their chairs together and chat during water breaks.
But it’s such a different world from the men. And not always in a good way.
Female cooperation not encouraged
When you see Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka practicing, or Rafael Nadal and Fabio Fognini, or Federer and young Alexander Zverev, it’s a huge treat for the fans who have a chance to watch.
How much would fans enjoy Serena and Karolina Pliskova practicing together? Or Halep and Agnieszka Radwanska. Or Angelique Kerber and Jelena Ostapenko, say.
It’s a hard trend to go buck, though, especially as it seems to be institutional. And, on some levels, it’s often encouraged by some coaches who aren’t necessarily top-level technical instructors. Those coaches want to ensure they remain essential to the players they’re working with. Oh, and the parents often have a say, as well.
Even within a country, there’s often competition to be that nation’s No. 1. And that leads to an atmosphere where the players don’t want to give anything away – even to their countrywomen.
It’s the wrong approach, of course. If your mindset is to be the best in your country, you’re not getting the bigger picture. And if there are only a few WTA-level players in a country, they could help each other get better to take on the world – not just each other.
ROLAND GARROS – That sound you heard in Paris’s 16th arrondissement over the last fortnight was the sound of a whirling dervish mowing down a field of 128 women aspiring to win the French Open.
The 2017 women’s singles champion turned 20 two days ago, is unseeded, oblivious, insouciant – and the first Latvian ever to win a major title.
Jelena Ostapenko defeated No. 3 seed Simona Halep of Romania 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 in a final that had plenty of twists and turns, and a whole lot at stake for the runner-up.
“I’m really happy to win here. I think I’m still – I still cannot believe it, because it was my dream and now it came true. I think I’m going to only understand that in maybe couple of days or couple of weeks,” Ostapenko said.
Fighting all the way
For the young champion, it looked on the outside like another day at the office. It’s an attitude she brought to every one of her seven matches over the last two weeks, especially the ones in which she was in trouble.
Down a set in the fourth round against 2010 runner-up Samantha Stosur, Ostapenko pulled it off. In the quarter-finals against former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki – a match interrupted three times by rain, once overnight – she lost the first five games of the match. When she’d regained the momentum in the second set, she had all night to think about it. But when the returned the next day she picked right up where she left off.
Against 28-year-old Timea Bacsinszky in the semi-finals, Ostapenko had her typical ups and downs. But if there was a thread woven through her last few matches, it was the abject lack of winners by her opponents. As they constructed points and waited for the opportunity to hit those winners, she jumped the line and made it happen herself – or not. But mostly, she did.
In the crucial moments, she really did.
Ostapenko a breath of fresh air
It had been a decade since there was a teenager in the semi-finals here, which Ostapenko was until Thursday, when she turned 20. That was Ana Ivanovic, whose retirement ceremony came between the two women’s semi-finals on Thursday. Ivanovic won it as well.
How refreshing it was, to see that youthful energy. In a game in which the major players no longer are teenaged prodigies – and even the young 20-somethings act as though the weight of the world is on their shoulders – it’s gone missing.
So often in recent years, winning has seemed like a relief rather than a thrill to the victors.
Ostapenko harkens back to the early days of Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati, in a good way.
As it happens, the last player to come back from a set down and win in a French Open women’s final was … Capriati, in 2001.
Pressure building for Halep
At 25, Halep was the more experienced and by consensus the superior clay-court player.
Had she won the match she not only would have earned her first Grand Slam title, she also would have become the No. 1 player in the world.
Was it too much to handle? Maybe it was. Especially as Halep was the clear favourite.
When the only thing standing in the way of your dreams is an inexperienced, unseeded opponent, you absolutely have to seize that day. There was no bigger pressure than the pressure she was putting on herself.
Halep had it. She was up a set and 3-0, with a couple of opportunities to make it 4-0 and perhaps run away with it. She couldn’t do it.
“I was losing 6-4, 3-0, and then in my mind I was just, I’m just going to enjoy the match, and I will try to fight until the last point. And then I stayed aggressive and the match turned my way,” Ostapenko said. “I think Simona, maybe she felt a little bit nervous because she had a lot of pressure. That also helped me. But also in the deciding moments, I think I played pretty well in those games. And was couple of deciding games and then the match turned the other way.”
Perhaps the turning point was a break point at 3-3 in the third set. A backhand Ostapenko was trying to shoot down the line appeared to be going way wide – until it hit the top of the net, bounced up, changed trajectory and landed so short inside the court, Halep had no chance to catch up to it.
Met every challenge – until the last
The Romanian had done plenty of fighting of her own during the two weeks, especially after a nasty ankle injury in Rome put her participation in doubt before the tournament even began.
She was done and dusted against No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina in the quarter-finals, down a set and 5-1 before she turned it around and won the match 6-0 in the third.
Halep had been here once before; she lost to Maria Sharapova in the 2014 final. “This one hurts a lot maybe because I am more -– I realize more what is happening. Three years ago was something new, so now I know. Hurts a lot, and I need time just to – I don’t know. To go away.”
The Romanian made an astonishing admission on court during the trophy ceremony.
“I can say that I was sick in the stomach before playing this final. Maybe I wasn’t ready to win it. But I want to. It’s my dream,” she said.
To feel that uncertainty is one thing. To admit it so publicly is another. And in Halep’s doubt is mirrored similar doubt from so many of the other top women in the game right now.
There was no Serena Williams on court in Paris. No Maria Sharapova. A defending champion in Garbiñe Muguruza who appeared nowhere near emotionally ready to give her title defence a real shot. You had a No. 1, Angelique Kerber, who went out so meekly to Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova in the first round it was as though she had never even been here.
As much as there has been talk in recent years of major titles being up for grabs, that was literally true at this French Open. And it seemed no one was prepared to take that opportunity and wrestle it into submission.
It almost seemed, at times, that it was a matter of who wasn’t going to lose it, more than someone actually winning it.
There for the taking
The likes of Kerber, Halep, Muguruza, Wozniacki, Radwanska and many more have a lot of scar tissue built up already. With Williams’ sporadic presence, Azarenka’s maternity break and Sharapova’s absence over the last 18 months, it’s been right there for all of them.
Perhaps, in a sense, Serena’s sabbatical has hurt more than it helped. When she was around, there was always the sense of, well, Serena is the best player in the world. If I don’t win a Slam, it’s pretty understandable.
Once that barrier was removed, the true test began. So far, it’s been a tough test to pass.
So, in hindsight, it almost makes sense that Ostapenko, who appears impervious to pressure in this early blush of her career, was there in the end. She wasn’t afraid to lose it. So she went out and won it.
That aggressive attitude seems very much be part of her makeup. “I think nobody (taught) me. It’s just the way I play. And also I think my character is like that. So I want to really hit the ball (hard),” she said.
This is her first tournament title of any kind at the top level – WTA Tour, or Grand Slam. Perhaps it was predestined; the last time this happened was in 1997, when Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil, ranked No. 66, did the very same thing.
The day he did it – June 8, 1997 – Ostapenko was born.
A loss that stings
For Halep, it has to be a bitter pill. Her tune-up season went about as well as it could; this French Open was hers to win.
Except, perhaps she didn’t believe it was her time. And if she didn’t believe it this week, you wonder when she will believe it again.
“She played really well, all the credit. She was hitting very strong. At some point I was like a spectator on court. She deserved to win. … It’s a tough moment for me, but it’s gonna go away, I hope, with the time,” Halep said. “I don’t believe I did something wrong – too wrong – today. … At least I can say I was there, I was close, but again, I lost it.
“Cannot change anything, so I just have to look forward.”
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.”
ROLAND GARROS – The women’s side in these days leading up to Sunday’s French Open start is all about the case of the sprained ankles.
The most crucial one, with all due respect to Genie Bouchard, is that of Simona Halep.
With her title in Madrid, and the finals appearance in Rome that was sabotaged by the ankle sprain, she’s clearly a favorite to take the title on form.
The big question is whether the ankle will allow Halep to win her first career Grand Slam title.
Halep was out on Court Suzanne Lenglen Thursday. If we had to rank them, we’d have to say Halep’s ankle is in better shape than that of Bouchard. That’s based on the extent to which the Romanian was moving, which was at a slightly more aggressive level.
ROLAND GARROS – On the plus side, Genie Bouchard got out onto the practice court Wednesday.
She had been scheduled to hit in the small annexe courts, up near the Bois de Boulogne. But she ended up on Court Suzanne Lenglen in the middle of the qualifying zone. So some fans did get to see her hit.
A couple of the young boys waiting for Richard Gasquet to take the court after her weren’t too impressed. They had no clue who she was. They kept asking her, “Madame, une balle s’il vous plaît!” (Ma’am, give us a ball, please!)
Hitting was about all Bouchard did. There was no running, and Bouchard was careful not to land on or push off much with the injured right ankle.
As is the case with Simona Halep, who has an injury to the same right ankle, she lands on her left foot after the serve. So both were able to hit serves Wednesday, but neither moved a whole lot.
The Canadian was in remarkably good spirits considering she’s in a race against the clock to be fit enough to play in the second Grand Slam tournament of the season.
It’s always better to laugh even when you might feel like crying – a good way to get through life’s trials.
Decision time looms
Bouchard is continuing with intensive treatment on the ankle. She’s likely to make the decision whether or not to give it a go on Saturday.
The singles draws will be made Friday. So that means she may be in the women’s singles draw whether or not she plays. Because she’s unseeded, even if she does pull out afterwards, it won’t mean the draw will have to be reshuffled.
Halep was one of the favourites to win the title before the ankle injury suffered during the singles final in Rome last week. She’ll be the No. 3 seed. Should she decide not to play, they would have to re-do the seeds and shuffle things around if she makes the call later than Friday morning.
These two are not the only players who have question marks around them as the tournament gets closer.
ROLAND GARROS – Genie Bouchard isn’t the only player whose presence at this year’s French Open is in doubt because of an ankle injury.
Simona Halep, the form player coming in after a title in Madrid and a final in Rome, also is a big question mark.
On her Instagram, the Romanian says the doctors tell her she is “50-50” after tearing a ligament in her ankle. Halep took a tumble during the final against Elina Svitolina. Although she kept playing, it was clear she had suffered an injury.
No details on the grade of Halep’s ankle sprain, or what the exact definition of “torn” is. But Halep said there was improvement since Sunday.
For Bouchard, there reportedly hasn’t been much improvement in the last few days.
Unless things take a turn for the worse, it’s likely both will wait until the last minute to make a final decision.
Kvitova to announce Friday
Meanwhile, Petra Kvitova will hold a press conference Friday. She will announce whether she will participate in this year’s French Open.
Kvitova had all the ligaments in the fingers of her left hand (her hitting hand) damaged after a terrifying home invasion last December. She had surgery and was optimistic she would be back for Wimbledon. She was hopeful, perhaps on the wishful-thinking side, that she might be able to play in Paris.
The players who are seeded fairly high in the French Open qualifying, who manage to get through their second-round matches, certainly are going to be watching this attentively. There look to be several lucky-loser spots opening up in the main draw in the next few days.