When Simona Halep won last year’s French Open, having suffered defeats in her first three major finals, Martina Navratilova quipped “It wasn’t a monkey off her back; this was an 800lb gorilla.”
So when Halep won her second slam title on Saturday – producing the cleanest performance, in terms of unforced errors, that a Wimbledon final has seen since the 1970s – there was a very different feeling.
As with Andy Murray’s second Wimbledon title in 2016, this was about enjoyment and satisfaction, rather than the lifting of a lifelong burden. The tennis world reacted with delight, reflecting the fact that Halep – who thus became the first Romanian to win here – is one of the most genuine people on the tour.
You only have to ask her hitting partner, 19-year-old Tom Thelwall-Jones. “The Saturday before the Championships started I was designated to hit with Simona on a Championship Court and then she requested me back,” said Thelwall-Jones, a Welshman who is now on an American college scholarship at the University of Tulsa.
“I’ve hit with her 10, 11 days in a row now. So it’s been pretty cool. She’s amazing. She got me tickets to both the semi-final and the final.
"Her on court interview really showed off who she is. She’s very chilled out. I thought that potentially she’d get uptight, nervous, but she was just the same throughout – very nice, the whole team are very nice.
“I got the text from her trainer to say if ‘I don’t see you tomorrow then I’ll see you next year,’ so we’ll see. It was an incredible experience and I’m so happy that she won and the style she did it in was amazing."
That sense of “chill” – a word Halep has referenced repeatedly during her tournament – was not always part of her repertoire. Despite her many qualities as a ball-striker and an athlete, she used to be held back by her own innate perfectionism.
The classic instance came two years ago in Miami, in a match that found her leading Johanna Konta by a set and a break. Despite her commanding position, she became increasingly ratty, calling her then coach Darren Cahill onto the court and proceeding to reject all his upbeat observations with sarcastic rejoinders. After she had capitulated to a three-set defeat, Cahill responded by walking out on her for a few weeks, until she agreed that her attitude was a problem.
“I was too negative,” said Halep on Saturday night. “I could not see the things I was doing great. Once you start thinking like that, you start to go further down mentally. I accepted I am like that and I don’t have to make big changes, just understand what is going wrong during those moments.
“I felt a bit lost when he [Cahill] told me we were going to split but I was also confident. I knew if I put into practice what he had told me during the three or four years when we were together, I had a better chance. We split but we are still talking and he is my friend who is by my side all the time. He still gives me advice – but friendly advice. Let’s hope this result will bring him back.”
Halep’s approach has changed again since her breakthrough at Roland Garros last year. Having broken her grand-slam duck, she decided that she was going to enjoy herself last winter, rather than submitting to the usual drudgery of the off-season training block. “I enjoyed life,” she said. “I went out, spent time with friends and went on holidays. I switched off tennis for about two months because I felt exhausted and I was injured as well.”
The lack of court time ahead of the Australian swing probably played a role in Halep arriving at Wimbledon without a single title to her name this year. But she would surely have traded those early struggles for the prize her mother Tania has been exhorting her to win since the age of ten. “I wanted to do it for her,” said Halep. “I always dreamed of being able to play in a final here but I never thought I would actually be able to do it.”
So what of Halep’s defeated opponent Serena Williams? The pre-match favourite came out cold on Saturday, spraying the ball in the first four games, which can only have helped Halep to establish such a smooth rhythm. But Williams will be back.
“Maybe playing other finals outside of Grand Slams would be helpful,” she said, after her third runner-up finish at a major in the past 12 months. “I'm entered in Toronto and Cincinnati. My knee feels great, so I'm really excited to test it out and keep going.”