Five questions with Simona Halep
Simona Halep is only 22 years old, but already she finds herself where no Romanian woman has ever been:
Among the top five of the WTA's rankings.
One year ago, hard as it is to believe, Halep had a middling 5-7 record and a ranking of No. 57 in the world. Now, after winning six titles last year and taking the title last month at Doha, the world No. 5 has won more matches than any other woman in the past 10 months. What changed?"I changed to be more aggressive on the court," she told ESPN.com on Tuesday from Miami during preparations for the Sony Open Tennis tournament. "And I was more relaxed -- that was the secret. I want to fight for every point, but also to enjoy the match.
"Last year in Rome when I injured my back I had some very, very tough moments. I said to myself I have to be happy I can play tennis and relax. That was what happened last year."
Indeed, the 5-foot-6 player is winning with aggressive play and is clearly enjoying herself. Halep reached the semifinals last week in Indian Wells before losing to No. 3-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska, but Miami has been a challenge for her.
Venus Williams and Dominika Cibulkova -- who beat Halep in the quarters at the Australian Open -- could await in the third and fourth rounds. The funny thing? Legend has it that Halep's manager since 2008, countrywoman Virginia Ruzici, can be blamed, in part, for Venus' appearance in this world.
"Yes, yes," Halep said. "I have heard this story from Virginia. I guess the father, Richard Williams, saw her playing and the check she received for winning the tournament. That was when he said, 'I am going to have more daughters and put them into the tennis.'"
Venus and, 15 months later, Serena Williams were born, and the rest is tennis history. Ruzici, who won the 1978 French Open, enjoyed her highest ranking at No. 8. But if Halep and Venus win their second-round matches, the two would meet for the fourth time; Venus won the first three.
You can blame Ruzici.
"Yeah," Halep said, laughing. "She is here with me now. If that happens, I will be sure to tell her."
ESPN.com spoke with Halep before a Tuesday practice session.
ESPN.com: You are ranked a career-high No. 5. There hasn't been this much excitement in your country since Ilie Nastase was No. 1 in the first ATP rankings in 1973. Are you surprised that it happened so fast?
Simona Halep: I am a little bit, yeah. I didn't expect this year that I can be top 10, so everything has changed in my life. People recognize me at home now, when I'm shopping -- or even parking the car. I mean, it's a good life. But I have to keep working hard.
ESPN.com: Last year you won six titles -- on four different surfaces -- second only to Serena Williams. How do you explain that?
Halep: I think I have a good, complete game, the forehand and backhand. My serve is not 100 percent, but I want to improve that. I feel more comfortable on clay, but I like hard courts, too, because the points are so much faster. The game is faster, which I like.
ESPN.com: At the Australian Open you won four matches. That's as many as you won all of last year in the Grand Slams. What do you have to do to be more successful in the majors?
Halep: It's different, because they are big tournaments with more pressure. I just want to stay relaxed and play them like other normal tournaments, to keep my mind without pressure. Now I feel prepared to play at that level.
ESPN.com: I read that Paris is your favorite city. What do you love about Paris?
Halep: Well, I won there in French Open juniors when I was 16 years and 8 months. I really like the city and [Roland Garros], too. It's not too small and it's not too big.
ESPN.com: Your goals going forward?
Halep: If I can, I want to remain in the top 10. I have to defend a lot of tournaments, so it will be tough. Every match is difficult. I have the same challenges I did when I was ranked outside the top 40. I want to improve and feel the pleasure every time I play.