SINGAPORE - World No.1 Simona Halep's 2017 began as a bust and ended with a bang. Halep's season, which saw her successfully defend her title at the Mutua Madrid Open, make her second Roland Garros final, and advance to her first China Open final to become the 25th woman to hold the No.1 ranking. To appreciate the highs of Halep's season, you have to understand the lows. To qualify for her fourth consecutive BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global, Halep faced her demons head-on and refused to let them dictate her career any longer. In short, Simona Halep learned how to be kind to herself.
"I'm proud that I could qualify for the fourth time in a row. It's a great thing, it shows that I am very consistent. I'm in the top for the last four years. It's a great feeling."
2017 SEASON SNAPSHOT:
Match record: 44-15 (74.6%)
Titles: 1 (Madrid)
Runner-up: 4 (Rome, Roland Garros, Cincinnati, Beijing)
Key Stat: Acquired over 60% of her ranking points on clay, posting an 18-3 record on the surface.
WTA Finals Qualification: Fourth time.
Full of optimism and ready to attack the season after a heavy off-season training session spent in Australia with coach Darren Cahill, Halep's season came quickly under threat after a knee injury derailed the first two and a half months. She won just two matches through January and February, with the most stinging loss coming at the Australian Open, where she won just four games against Shelby Rogers in the first round.
Halep returned to the tour at Indian Wells with tempered expectations. Her body was still rusty with the lack of match play, but she began to build positive momentum when the tour turned to Miami. In the Round of 16, she rallied from a set and 3-5 down to beat Sam Stosur, saving a match point along the way.
Though Halep's tennis had turned a corner, she would have to face a bitter lesson in her very next match. Playing Johanna Konta - a player who would feature heavily in the narrative of Halep's season - Halep blew a commanding lead to lose to Konta in three sets in the quarterfinals. The match proved to be the most pivotal moment of Halep's season, bigger than the French Open final or her numerous matches for No.1.
After letting go of a lead to lose the second set, Halep let loose during a coaching timeout with Cahill, excoriating herself for her nerves and inability to play at her best when the match was on the line.
Watch the entire timeout below:
Unhappy with her negative attitude, that timeout would lead to Cahill's stunning decision to part ways with Halep.
"The biggest lesson I had in my career was the split with Darren after Miami," Halep said on the WTA Insider Podcast. "It was a shock for me. On that day I said well, I did something wrong and I have to accept it and to work to change something to bring him back to my team because he helped me a lot and he's still helping me. That was the best lesson, not just for tennis but also in life."
"I could not control my nerves, I could not control myself. I was talking too bad to myself. I don't deserve that because I'm working hard and I just have to appreciate myself more."
Committed to a new mindset and motivated by her desire to lure Cahill back to the team, Halep revealed a "new Simo" almost immediately. In her first matches after Miami, she went 2-0 at Fed Cup, avenging her loss to Konta in straight sets. She then rolled to the semifinals in Stuttgart, losing to eventual champion Laura Siegemund. Cahill liked what he saw and the duo reunited in Madrid, where Halep won her first title of the season.
Listen to Halep discuss her successful reunion with Cahill after winning Madrid:
Halep's commitment to improving her mental game paid immediate dividends but it would also be repeatedly tested. After overcoming an ankle sprain to make her second French Open final and play for the No.1 ranking, Halep was a set and 3-0 up on 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko only to lose in three sets. A good run at Wimbledon pit her against her budding rival Konta in the quarterfinals with the No.1 ranking on the line again. Despite playing her best match ever on grass, Halep came within two points of the win only to lose 6-7(2), 7-6(5), 6-4. A strong summer hard court season put the No.1 ranking in reach again in Cincinnati, but Halep won just one game in a lop-sided final to Garbiñe Muguruza.
Each time she was faced with disappointment, Halep found a way to bounce back. With an unwavering team behind her, she continued to look for solutions and opportunities. At the US Open, Lady Luck again frowned on the Romanian, as she drew Maria Sharapova in the opening round. The two fierce on-court rivals locked horns over three sets in one of the best matches of the tournament, but Halep succumbed in three sets, dropping to 0-6 vs. the Russian.
Her reaction to another crushing loss? Get back on the practice court and hit serves until her shoulder might fall off.
"After the match, I talked to Darren and he told me my serve was s**t and that's why I lost the match," Halep said. "So I said ok, if that's the only one thing I can improve to beat her, then I work for it.
"I've been on court one hour every day hitting serves. Darren said stop it because you're going to hurt yourself and I said I will not. I just wanted it a lot. I wanted it with everything."
Halep arrived in Asia not even thinking about the No.1 ranking. Her first goal was to secure her spot for Singapore, which she did in Wuhan. Her second goal was just to find her rhythm and take it match by match. As it turned out, just as Halep let go of the idea she might finally get to No.1, fate stepped in to give her a chance at redemption.
At the China Open, Halep would avenge her loss to Sharapova in a dominant straight set win, notching her first career win over the former No.1. Then in the semifinals, where once again a win would vault her to No.1, Halep avenged her French Open loss to Ostapenko, closing out a straight-set win to become the first Romanian to ever hold the WTA No.1 ranking.
Listen to Halep discuss her turbulent rise to No.1 below:
"Everything there I like," Halep said about Singapore. "I played so well in 2014. And then I played ok - I didn't play bad - but I didn't the chance to qualify from the groups. This year I'm looking forward to go there, to enjoy more and to fight more. Maybe I will have a little bit more luck and I will qualify for the semifinals. I just want to expect that I will give everything, and about the result, we will see."