Hidden indiscriminately among its myriad of traditions, a harmless quirk has the defending champions opening play on Centre Court at Wimbledon. It’s an acknowledgement of past prowess by the world’s biggest tournament.
For Simona Halep, however, the chance had passed. The 2019 champion was not able to defend her title in 2020 after the tournament was cancelled due to COVID-19, and she did not play in 2021 due to a calf injury. This year, with defending champion Ash Barty having announced her retirement in March, she was snubbed by the All England Club in favour of World No. 1 Iga Swiatek.
“It’s very special to be back”
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 4, 2022
The thinking behind the decision was, reportedly, related to Halep’s neck injury that she suffered at the tune up event at Bad Homburg last month. After a few years of uncertainty and buildup marred by physical issues, it was presumed that the Romanian will not be up to the task at SW19 this year.
So, her hotly anticipated first-round encounter against Karolina Muchova was relegated to the No. 1 Court, where she won with a statement-making score line of 6-3, 6-2. She then navigated her next two assignments – against Belgium’s Karen Flipkens and Poland’s Magdalena Frech – in straight sets before she was able to walk out on tennis’ most famous court again, taking on fourth seed Paula Badosa in the fourth round.
Simona steals the show.
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 4, 2022
It was a performance befitting the stage, a not-so-gentle reminder of her ability to those who had counted her out, a thumping 6-1, 6-2 demolition of one of the in-form players on tour reminiscent of her dominant display in the summit clash against Serena Williams three years ago.
Halep thoroughly outplayed Badosa in all aspects on Monday. She unleashed 17 winners and only yielded nine unforced errors. Badosa’s serve, which had been in her corner all week and had only been broken thrice in that time, was broken five times by Halep, who created a total of 11 break point opportunities. It was Halep’s best result of the year and one that catapulted her as one of the favourites for the Wimbledon title this year.
A former World No. 1 and two-time Grand Slam champion, Halep is hardly an upstart. Even though she did not come into the tournament in red hot form, she was part of a trio of past champions – alongside Angelique Kerber and Petra Kvitova – who stood an outside chance. But her dominant displays have come as a surprise, given the state of her career over the past few years.
The Romanian revealed earlier this year that she had considered retiring from the sport entirely, after a calf injury that kept her out of the French Open, Wimbledon, and the Olympics last year had caused much disillusionment. “I had the biggest injury of my career, and I didn’t know how to manage it at the start […] I was scared and had low confidence because I felt my body didn’t hold anymore,” she told CNN earlier this year. “I really suffered and I didn’t see any light outside of the tunnel.”
Halep turned things around in 2022. She joined hands with coach Patrick Mouratoglou – who led Serena Williams to 10 of her last 23 Majors – and started the year with a title in an Australian Open tune-up in Melbourne. She has not won a title since though, and the rest of season has been disjointed.
A couple of promising semifinal berths at Indian Wells and Doha were followed by a disappointing clay season. Some solid results on grass ahead of Wimbledon were overshadowed by the neck injury. She was showing all the characteristics of a once-dominant player on the decline, something that had become a common occurrence on the women’s tour recently. A deep run in Wimbledon should put an end to those concerns though.
The road ahead
Halep was handed a difficult draw, but her win over Badosa and Swiatek’s early defeat have boosted her chances of emerging victorious at SW19 now. She faces the big-hitting Amanda Anisimova in the quarterfinal next.
The American had picked up a high-profile win over Halep at the 2019 French Open quarterfinal, and her results at Wimbledon have shown how well-tuned her all-out attacking game has been. At her best, Halep’s counterpunching skills are well known, and she should take up aggressive court positions to redirect pace from the baseline. From the baseline, given her recent results, she will be backing herself to win the longer exchanges.
If she gets past Anisimova, a semifinal against Elena Rybakina or Ajla Tomljanovic awaits. There is still a long way to go, but her run at SW19 likely inspired plenty of confidence for the rest of the season, and her favourable position in the draw will have her rubbing her hands at the opportunity of a second Wimbledon triumph.