Playing tennis, as Simona Halep keeps on telling herself, should be about the pursuit of pleasure. That's not to say that she's some reckless, risk-taking hedonist - she isn't - just that she likes to remind herself that competing on the tennis tour ought to be fun. Once there was fear in Halep's game, now there's joy, and this new approach has propelled her inside the WTA's Top 10 for the first time.
You sometimes hear it said that tennis is played in the little grey cells before it's played on the red clay, the green grass or on any of the other colors of the WTA, and that's never truer than with Halep, only the third Romanian, after Virginia Ruzici and Irina Spirlea, to be ranked in the Top 10. If Halep hadn't reset her mental attitude, she wouldn't have recently hosted a party at her new apartment in Bucharest with her friends and family to mark her elevation to the elite of the women's game. "We drank a little champagne and had some good food," Halep, 22, said. "It felt really good to be in the Top 10 for the first time, really nice, something to celebrate."
This has been a period of transformation for Halep, who comes from Constanta, on the shores of the Black Sea. Moving into your new home is a big moment in the life of any young person, and it was just the other day that Halep, who bought and decorated her apartment last year, spent her first night at her place.
Understandably, though, she has been a little more animated about joining the Top 10, her reward for an astonishing 12 months, including winning more titles in 2013 than anyone apart from Serena Williams. No wonder the international tennis media voted for Halep as the WTA's Most Improved Player; she hadn't previously won a title on the WTA, but ended up scoring six tournaments, across clay, grass and hardcourts. And no wonder that, whenever she steps out of her Bucharest apartment block, she can expect to be surrounded by tennis enthusiasts either requesting autographs or wanting to pass on their congratulations ("that's nice to hear that"). And her success has continued into this season, as at last month's Australian Open she achieved her dream of reaching a first Grand Slam quarterfinal. But let's not pretend that Halep hasn't encountered turbulence along the way.
A former junior World No.1, and junior French Open champion, Halep didn't find it easy making the transition to the senior game. She was often so stressed that she couldn't move her feet or strike the ball properly. "I was frightened, I was being too defensive with my game and I was doing too much running," conceded Halep, who came around to the realization that she had been putting too much pressure on herself. Walking on court, she would forever be telling herself, "I want to win this match."
So Halep made what she described as "a big mental change". "What changed was that I allowed myself to be relaxed on court by taking the pressure off. I told myself to enjoy it and to play with pleasure," said Halep, who recently met her new coach, Wim Fissette, who has previously worked with Kim Clijsters and Sabine Lisicki. "If you're feeling too much stress on court, you need to learn to take pleasure from the game, and not the results. It's important to feel good on the court, and not to feel stress, as when you're stressed you can't move your body. You just need to try to enjoy it, and don't think about the results. If you're more relaxed on court, you can play your best tennis." As a little girl, Halep had taken simple pleasure from swinging a racquet - to progress as a professional, she almost had to return to that child-like mental state of playing for the sheer thrill of it.
Technically, Halep has hardly changed a thing - it's just now that she plays with much more aggression. She's no longer so tentative. Halep's old idol, Justine Henin, showed her that "smaller girls" can beat anyone; at five and a half feet, the Eastern European isn't the tallest player on the scene, but her results have demonstrated that, with a relaxed and happy mind, and an aggressive strategy, you can beat anyone. One of Halep's titles last year came at WTA's Tournament Of Champions, but this year, if she can continue taking pleasure along the Road To Singapore, she could find herself competing at the WTA Championships in the city, and wouldn't that be fun?
~ Mark Hodgkinson is a tennis writer and author based in London. He is currently working on 'The Secrets of The Locker Room', which will be published by Bloomsbury in 2015.