Simona Halep: ‘Taking the ball earlier and make my game stronger – that’s our vision’

The Romanian has chosen Patrick Mouratoglou as her new coach to get her back on the winning track in Grand Slams and to add more aggression to her game. An exclusive interview

Simona Halep Simona Halep of Romania during practice before the start of the 2020 Roland Garros Grand Slam tennis tournament (Zuma/Panoramic)

She is one and a half metres behind the line, and the rallies repeat with the same pattern. Simona Halep puts a lot of intensity into her shots. She tries to gain ground. Her hitting partner Arnaud Restifo prevents her from doing so with long, covered shots that go as deep as possible. At the slightest opening, Halep goes to the net in one or two steps.

At the back, Patrick Mouratoglou walks with his chest lifted. He doesn’t miss a beat and suggests a correction from time to time. We are on the centre court of the Mouratoglou Academy, six weeks away from the French Open, and the mission has already begun for Halep, winner in Paris in 2018 and determined to return to the ranks of the world’s best tennis players.

The Romanian saved her first words after the announcement of her association with Mouratoglou on Thursday for Tennis Majors. She is banking heavily on this change of structure, with a double objective: titles and developments in her game.

“I asked to work with Patrick because I really want to get back to the top, and I felt like he’s the best person to help me to do that. I was lucky that he was actually available to do it with me. I want to get back to the top, and of course, I’m dreaming of another Grand Slam because that’s why I’m working every day.”

Halep : ‘To play with the big hitters isn’t easy’

Halep knows that she has one of the best attacking/defending balances on tour, which makes her a great clay court player. But now in her thirties, and with the hard-hitting Iga Swiatek having just taken over as the world’s top women’s tennis player, she now wants to be “a bit more aggressive” on court.

“I want to take the ball earlier. I want to open the court much better than I did before. I don’t say that I had a bad game before but I want to make it stronger.”

“I would like to get stronger in the body as well, because to be offensive and to be close to the baseline, to play with the big hitters is not easy. So you have to be strong on the body. I will work on that, but also to open the court to use some angles a little bit better than before and actually to take the ball early. So that’s the goal in in our vision.”

A champion at Roland-Garros and Wimbledon, Halep has “no limits” in her ambition, as her coach puts it. “No 1 spot is pretty special, but the Grand Slam I feel is more special,” says Halep, who rose to the top between 2017 and 2019.

‘A hard court Slam would be nice!’

It doesn’t take much questioning to realise that a career Grand Slam, with at least one title at the Australian Open and US Open, is a driving force behind her revival. But her response shows that she still sees herself as a clay-court specialist who needs to convince herself of her legitimacy on fast surfaces.

“I love clay,” Halep says, “so that’s why I probably I was able to win many tournaments on clay [seven out of her 23 wins, including two in Madrid and one in Rome] and also the French Open [in 2018]. I won Wimbledon [in 2019], which I never expected because it’s super fast and you need the serve. So I don’t have a big serve there. But my game was really good in that year and it was just perfect for the surface and I was very confident.”

“I’ve won tournaments on the hard court, also big tournaments [ten tournament titles on hard, including two in Canada and one Indian Wells], but I couldn’t win a Grand Slam yet, so probably I have to do something extra to be able to win a Grand Slam there, and that’s why I’m working now with Patrick. Maybe he can help me to be able to win a Grand Slam on hard court. It would be super, super nice to have that also in my career.”

Halep has changed almost everything about herself to advance her quest. She had never set foot in an academy when Darren Cahill, her former coach and friend, recommended she stay at the Mouratoglou Academy. A month and a half after her first arrival, she moved to the Riviera and rebuilt her team around the French set-up.

“My team is composed of Virginia Ruzici, my manager for 16 years, Arnaud Restifo, my hitting partner, my physical trainer Teo Cercel. I would like to add a physio to the team. Maybe he or she will come from the academy.”

‘2021 was the worst year ever’ (Halep)

Halep is hoping to be at full physical strength at the Madrid tournament, from 26 April to 8 May, after making her run to the semi-finals in Indian Wells with various physical problems, the same ones that prevented her from playing in Miami the week afterwards. One of these muscular problems was not fully resolved when she picked up her racquet again. Halep feels below her best but admits that the 2022 season so far has been rather encouraging in the face of a 2021 campaign marred by a torn left calf and heavy personal issues. “Worst year ever,” she sighs.

“My confidence was very low before Australia,” says Halep, who has played 19 matches and won 15 so far in 2022. “And then I did the those few matches in Aussie Open and after that I won some good matches, with Jabeur (in Dubai), the first top ten player I played this year. And I feel like I’m pretty working okay now, the confidence is going higher. And also I need some more practice hours on court and then probably I will feel much better.”

Iga Swiatek’s three titles in Doha, Indian Wells and Miami mean there will be no power vacuum at the top of the WTA after Ash Barty’s surprise retirement. “I think there will not be anyone as Serena to dominate the WTA Tour,” Halep replied. “I feel like it’s very open and I always said this, that everyone can win a tournament she is playing, so you never know who is going to be the winner. The top 10 is super open.”

He has a few words that he tells you and you understand perfectly what you have to do.

Simona Halep on Patrick Mouratoglou

While Halep doesn’t see herself as the new Serena, she notes that “Patrick made Serena better than she was before” and that “it has put him in the top tier of coaches”.

“I didn’t really know him before this year,” she says. “We never talked and I didn’t have a feeling of how he is, but I saw that he has a strong personality and he’s pretty hard as a coach. So I thought he’s a good match for me and that’s why I’m here.

“He’s easy to talk to. We know each other pretty well already, which is a big step for me because I’m not very open to everybody, I’m a very introverted person. So he made me open and I think this is a good thing for our relationship on court. His simplicity is super heavy, super strong. He has a few words that he tells you and you understand perfectly what you have to do.”

Mouratoglou has coached Serena to ten of her 23 Grand Slams – and she was aged over 30 for each of them. Halep turned 30 last year.

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