How a breast reduction helped Simona Halep climb the tennis world rankings
Nigel Farage famously stated that the idea of a Romanian living next door makes him uncomfortable. Yet he might reconsider if that Romanian happened to be Simona Halep, the new arrival in the WTA Tour’s top five.
Halep, who will play Heather Watson on Thursday in the second round of the French Open, could hardly be more different from Farage’s lazy stereotype of scrounging migrants. Not that she is in any need of benefit payouts in any case, having earned almost £900,000 in prize-money this season alone.
Now in her sixth year on the tour, Halep has dragged herself painstakingly up the rankings ladder, even going so far as to have breast reduction surgery to make herself lighter and more flexible. Hard-working, multilingual and popular in the locker-room, she is a self-made woman in every sense.
“I’m enjoying this moment of my life because it’s the best,” said Halep, who has climbed from a ranking of 57 a year ago to be the fourth seed in Paris. “On the streets of my home town [the historic coastal resort of Constanta], people recognise me. They congratulate me and say nice words. Kids have started to play because of me.
“It’s an amazing feeling because tennis is a beautiful, elegant sport. It is my passion. So I hope many more kids will go on court because of me. And I don’t want to stop my dream here. I want to become better and - why not? - win a grand slam if that is possible.”
The field in Paris has certainly opened up this week. The departure of Li Na on Tuesday left Halep as the highest-ranked woman in the bottom half of the draw, and after lightning struck for a second time on Wednesday on Court Suzanne Lenglen, she need no longer worry about Serena Williams either.
It is these sort of opportunities that led Halep - who is still only 22 - to seek out a new coach in January. She had just made a horrible mess of her first grand slam quarter-final, losing 6-3, 6-0 to Dominika Cibulkova in Melbourne. Afterwards she admitted that “I had emotions, big emotions, and I couldn’t manage this”. Her solution was to hire an experienced hand in Wim Fissette, a Belgian who has overseen major victories at the Australian Open the US Open with Kim Clijsters. “It was an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Fissette told Telegraph Sport. “She has the complete game, and she is very intelligent on the court.
“In Melbourne, all the emotions were too much for her. It was a dream just to be in the last eight, and the first time you are there it is a difficult situation. But you go step by step. Next time she will do better.”
Like a number of other female tennis players - think Clijsters, Caroline Wozniacki, Judy Murray and the late, lamented Elena Baltacha - Halep is the daughter of a footballer. Her father Stere played second division football in the Romanian leagues, earning a living, if not a particularly good one.
“He had a chance to go to Farul Constanta, which is the big team from our city,” she says. “But his parents didn’t let him play any more because they were afraid that he would be injured.” Now Stere runs a dairy factory and relishes following his daughter’s career. “He is very happy now because of me, always he said that one of his kids, they have to do sport. My brother did tennis also for about five years but then he went to university. Now he has finished his studies and he travels with me. He is here and he also came to Rome and Madrid; he is enjoying life.” According to Fissette, those “footballer’s legs” are Halep’s greatest asset. “When she’s playing well she is flying over the court,” he said.
“It’s a natural thing, she was born with fast feet and her movement is very soft. It’s a big like watching Roger Federer: he is in a different category of course but he also doesn’t use much energy, his movement is soft and light.”
That natural mobility has improved still further since the breast reduction operation, which Halep underwent when she was 17. She said at the time that “I don’t like them in my everyday life, either. I would have gone for surgery even if I hadn’t been a sportswoman”.
Now the issue hardly comes up on the tennis tour, even if it remains popular with internet search engines, judging by the suggestions that appear when you put Halep’s name into Google.
“I did not know her then, but I have seen some photos,” Fissette says. “She took that decision and it was a good one. I understand that it’s what a lot of people know her for: in the Belgian newspapers it is same thing. But let’s hope she will win a grand slam and then they will start talking about that instead.”