SHENZHEN, China - In 2016, Simona Halep famously advised a young Canadian junior to give professional tennis a try. Fast forward just a few years, and the pair will meet again - this time, with Halep taking on the fast-rising Bianca Andreescu in her first match at the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen.
“I remember when we talked in the car,” Halep said in her All-Access Hour press conference.
It’s an anecdote that the Romanian has recounted many times in the years since, and it goes like this: on their way to a Rogers Cup function, a 16-year-old Andreescu got chatting with her idol Halep. After surprising Halep with her Romanian fluency - both of Andreescu’s parents hail from Romania, and Andreescu herself spent part of her childhood there - she asked Halep for advice on navigating the transition between the junior circuit and the pros.
“Yeah, I just told her that she has to stop juniors because she's strong enough to make the step,” Halep explained. Her assessment was spot on, and Andreescu went on to steadily chip away at her ranking before bursting onto the WTA scene in a big way this season.
“It's amazing what she has done,” the Romanian said. “To win a Grand Slam at 19, play few tournaments and win them, it's a great, great job. I just want to tell her that she deserved because she played really well these tournaments.
“I'm excited also to face her. It's going to be a big challenge for me because this year was up and down a lot. I just have a very big up during the Wimbledon, and the rest was not that great. I'm not thinking about winning or losing here. I just want to be able to play the matches.”
The buzz around the pair’s first meeting is contagious even to the players themselves, and for good reason: it’s a battle of two Grand Slam titlists, with the reigning Wimbledon winner taking on the US Open champion, and the contrast in styles should create intriguing rallies on the slow Center Court in Shenzhen.
“It's like you're playing the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam right away,” Andreescu said. “But I got some good practice in. I have some pretty good wins up my sleeve. I think I have some pretty good momentum coming into this tournament.
“Me and Simona, I've always wanted to play her. I'm finally getting my chance. I'm really excited.”
Playing against one of her biggest idols will be nothing new for Andreescu, who also faced her hero Serena Williams in two finals en route to winning the Rogers Cup and US Open. Her coach Sylvain Bruneau hopes her experience in those matches will ease the pressure for the 19-year-old.
“She brought up Simona a lot earlier,” Bruneau admitted in his WTA Coaches press conference. “I felt it was someone she really looked up to when she was younger.
“Recently she had the chance also to play Serena. They don't have the Romanian thing, but it was a lot of similarities. We were able to get some experience there and preparation with playing someone she was looking up to coming up and growing up. So I think it will be a bit similar.
“Again, as much as she respects Simona, she's really looked up to her, shaped some stuff in her game based on what she does, obviously we need to make sure when she steps on the court that stays behind obviously. That's going to be my role.”
For Halep’s head coach Daniel Dobre, the key will be for Halep to make a strong, assertive start that won’t allow Andreescu to get a foothold in the match.
He outlined the game plan in his own WTA Coaches press conference:
“The first goal I think is to find her rhythm,” Dobre assessed. “The last month [Simona] didn't play so many matches. I hope she will not get scared about her back and she will go full from the beginning.... The first thing is to trust her physical condition and to find the match concentration. If Simona do this, she can play everybody.
“The other thing is to play her game and to not let Bianca to make her own game. Bianca is playing very aggressive, but at the same time she is playing smart. She is talented, can mix the game. That's why Simona need to be focused on each point.”
Dobre added, “Bianca, it was a surprise for everybody. Now, everybody knows how good she is and everybody knows how difficult is to play.”
No.4 seed Bianca Andreescu will face No.5 seed Simona Halep in the second singles match of the day on Monday as Purple Group action kicks off at the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen.