<
>

Simona Halep needs to find the next gear at the WTA Finals

Until this month, the much-loved but baffling Simona Halep was known mostly for letting some of the greatest prizes in the game slip away. She now has a chance at the WTA Finals in Singapore, which start Sunday, to hold on to one of the biggest of them all, the No. 1 ranking for 2017.

It's the most compelling storyline in this tumultuous year in women's tennis -- one in which three first-time No.1 players -- Karolina Pliskova, Garbine Muguruza and Halep -- rose to the top in the span of just four months. It's the first time that's ever happened in pro tennis. They are all clustered within 600 rankings points of each other heading into the final showdown.

Too often, Halep's fingers have turned to rubber and her palms have shaken when a great opportunity was there to be taken -- whether it was the prospect of winning a Grand Slam final or even earning the No. 1 ranking she currently holds. This year alone, she fumbled three chances to rise to No. 1 before finally reaching that milestone earlier this month.

At 5-foot-6 and lacking a major shot, Halep has always had to live by her wits, combating bigger and stronger opponents with clean strokes, foot speed and a tenacity often undermined by a streak of negativity that emerges at the most inopportune times.

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for Simona," Tennis Channel commentator Tracy Austin told ESPN.com. "She just kept biding her time, even though she missed out three times this year when the top ranking was within touching distance. That would have crushed many people, but she just kept working."

Note that Halep didn't back into the top ranking, as did the two women who previously occupied the top spot in this topsy-turvy year. Pliskova and Muguruza both hit No. 1 this summer but landed there thanks to losses by their rivals.

Halep locked up the top spot the hard way, with a brace of satisfying recent wins against quality opponents in Beijing. First, she avenged her humiliating US Open first-round loss to Maria Sharapova -- Halep's first win in their eight meetings. Then in the semifinals, Halep locked up the top ranking with a win against Jelena Ostapenko, the player who inflicted a crushing, unexpected defeat on Halep in the French Open final back in June.

Halep led that match at Roland Garros by a set and 3-0 before the negativity to which she's always been prey took command. "That was the toughest moment for me," Halep said recently in a WTA podcast. "I was devastated after that match. But I told myself to go back to work. It will happen one day. I just need to work harder."

Although Halep has always been a hard worker, her resolve multiplied after a dramatic rebuke earlier this year by her coach, ESPN analyst Darren Cahill. It occurred at the Miami Open in March after Halep fell into a funk after splitting sets in a quarterfinal meeting with Johanna Konta. On a coaching visit during the changeover, Cahill pleaded with Halep to give it her best in the third set. Halep ignored Cahill's entreaties and quit the match. Cahill responded by quitting the Halep team.

"After Miami -- and a few other matches in the past -- I felt ashamed," Halep said. "The split with Darren was a shock for me. That day I said, 'Well, I did something wrong, I have to accept it and change it.' It was the best thing I learned in tennis, and also in life."

That kind of honesty, combined with her near-perfect credentials as an underdog, has won Halep legions of fans.

"I love her honesty," said Mary Carillo, also a Tennis Channel analyst. "She's more candid than anyone else, even when she stumbles and screws up. You can see how much it means to her, and you wish she would give herself more of a break sometimes."

It hasn't been easy for Halep, and perhaps it will never be. That long history of coming up just short, of experiencing just that smidgen of hesitation instead of that spark of aggression at critical moments will be difficult to banish for good. It happened at Wimbledon, it happened at the French Open -- it happened in less closely watched places at less obvious times.

"That's just pressure," Austin said. "That's sports. That's human nature. How do you fault someone for that? If this were easy, everybody would win Wimbledon."

Everybody doesn't win Wimbledon, but somebody always does. There's never been a better example than this year. The champ, Muguruza, has played 21 tournaments and won just two. But when Muguruza catches a strong wave, she can surf it to any title. That's one reason this promises to be a wide-open WTA Finals. And Pliskova, with that earthshaking serve and backing forehand, is unlikely to be a pushover.

But the moment is waiting for Halep. Pliskova didn't make it out of the round-robin stage in her Singapore debut last year. Muguruza, a semifinalist in 2015, fell in the same stage last year.

This is Halep's fourth consecutive trip to the tournament. She slashed her way to the final in Singapore in 2014 with a win over Serena Williams in the round-robin, but fell to the American in that same event when they met in the final. In Halep's most recent two trips, though, she has not made it to the semifinal stage.

The only previous winner of the WTA Finals in this year's draw will be Venus Williams. Caroline Wozniacki, another qualifier, was a runner-up in 2010 and a semifinalist on two other occasions.

The key for Halep probably will be her serve. After Halep's loss to Sharapova in New York, Cahill told her her serve needed work. Halep responded by spending an hour each day after her regular practice working on her serve -- over the objections of Cahill, who feared she was risking injury.

"I'd like to see that serve improved," Carillo said. "It doesn't have to be an ace-making serve, but maybe something she can use in a one-two combo. I love her 'small ball' style, but she could use a little more variety -- drop shots, lobs, some patterns she can rely on."

Fleshing out her game would be a worthy project for Halep, and it might be time to make that the top priority.