Halep Enters A New League

©2014 Billie Weiss/BNP Paribas Open

Romania’s Simona Halep has arrived.

The 22 year old entered the Top 10 in the WTA Rankings after a run into the quarterfinals of the 2014 Australian Open, and she reflected on this achievement at the WTA All-Access Hour on Wednesday ahead of the 2014 BNP Paribas Open.

“It’s amazing to be Top 10 and it’s amazing to see that I can play at this level.”

“After [Melbourne] I thought I could be at the highest level in tennis. Now I am really happy that I can play in the Top 10. I think it’s the most important for a player. It’s not easy. I want to remain there [for a while] - not just one day or one week.”

Halep, the Indian Wells sixth seed, appreciates her arrival into this elite group in women’s tennis; only two other Romanians – Irina Spirlea and Virginia Ruzici – had ever broken through. “You don’t work just [for work’s sake],” said Halep, happy that her ranking now reflects the inspired tennis she has played dating back to the clay courts of Rome last year.

Free of a hampering back injury, Halep returned to a “more aggressive” style in that event, upsetting two seeded players and two former Grand Slam champions before falling to Serena Williams in the semifinals.

She gained momentum over the year, and by season’s end collected titles in Sofia, Moscow, New Haven, Budapest, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, and Nurnberg. “I like all the surfaces,” said Halep, “I am the most comfortable on clay but all surfaces are good for me.” So far in 2014, Halep has already won one title, beating Angelique Kerber in straight sets to hoist her seventh title, in Doha.

Halep plays the BNP Paribas Open after bowing out in her opening round in Dubai with a tear in her Achilles tendon. “My injury is fine now. I don’t feel pain because I had treatment. I protect it now with tape.” Halep remains cautious but has come to the California desert prepared to take on the draw. “I’ve worked hard this week for four days. I am prepared for the next match.”

Halep also seems prepared to take on the new responsibilities of her higher ranking, acknowledging the inevitable increase in press conferences and other obligations common in the lives of top players.

“I’m excited to be here for the first time,” said Halep, smiling, before the media roundtable began. “It’s a new [way] of my life now and I have to enjoy it. I have to do [these press conferences], so it’s okay.”

Halep, who counts Justine Henin and Roger Federer as her tennis idols, has also adapted to her winning ways; more success on the tour means that she goes deeper into draws, staying around at a tournament for longer stretches.

“The rhythm is different. Before I could play just a few matches and I had to change locations. Now I play longer and I am enjoying it. I am happier now.”

And these deeper runs require a smarter look at her playing schedule. “You have to pay attention to each tournament and be fresh every time. I like to have weeks off because it’s better for my body. I don’t recover very fast. I will work with my coach to [create] a good schedule.”

And now with her name in proverbial lights, Halep has also becomes a target for her fellow competitors. “I feel it on court. I feel like they are fighting more now.”

Halep recently signed on Wim Fissette, the former coach of Kim Clijsters and Sabine Lisicki, to help with her game. “We work well together. It’s our fourth week together so now I have had more time to practice with him.”

What’s next for the newly minted Top 10 player? “My goal is to play in the semifinals in one Grand Slam. Rankings are not so important for me. I just want to stay longer in tournaments.

“I just want to play my game every time. Maybe try to be more aggressive and to improve my serve. I need the serve more now [than before].”

This week, Halep sits in the bottom half of the 2014 BNP Paribas Open draw with second seed Agniezska Radwanska, Halep could face 26th seed Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic in the third round and either Sara Errani or Canadian phenom Eugenie Bouchard in the Round of 16. Halep also shares the same quarter of the draw as 2012 champion Victoria Azarenka.

“I love the place and the tournament. I like that we can have cars here. I like to drive,” said Halep. “I get the bigger car. It’s good,” she laughed. And people are very nice to me now [that they recognize my name].”