“Si-mo-na! Si-mo-na! Si-mo-na! Si-mo-na!”
No matter where the show court is in the world, there will be a pocket or two of Romanian fans singing to their tennis queen. Where once there was Ilie Nastase, there’s now Simona Halep from the Black Sea coast.
If we take a look at the draw handed to Halep at this year’s French Open, and the confidence she’ll take from swatting Lesia Tsurenko aside in the third round, it’s likely that there will be cheers of “Si-mo-na!” well into the second week.
While the 27-year-old has made significant runs at all four majors, Paris is where she has found the most joy…and heartbreak.
12 months ago, all those who believe in some sort of tennis logic were relieved when Halep recovered from a set down against Sloane Stephens to win the final.
A more aggressive mindset from the Romanian coupled with a drop in the American’s level helped Halep to her first grand slam after three close shaves.
In 2014, the world no.3 lost her first Roland Garros final in three sets to Maria Sharapova in a match she could have won. The Romanian’s disappointment was compounded three years later at the same venue when she threw away a one-set lead over Jelena Ostapenko.
Another good opportunity slipped from her grasp that day.
Then, at the start of 2018, it was Caroline Wozniacki who captured the Australian Open at the expense of Halep in a gripping contest. The match went to three sets and again, Halep could have won it.
As she enters the second week of the 2019 French Open, Halep has the luxury of knowing that a replica of the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen sits in her trophy cabinet.
The question is: can she take another one home with her this fortnight?
Defending the French Open – if you’re not Rafa Nadal – is a serious challenge even for the best players.
The last woman to win back-to-back French Opens was the great Justine Henin. With her magnificent backhand, Henin claimed the trophy three times in a row from 2005 to 2007. The last woman to repeat before the Belgian was Steffi Graf back in the 90s. As you can see, it’s a hard thing to do.
Retaining the trophy has already been a struggle for Halep this week, but she’s found a way to grind out wins. The world no.3 was taken to three sets by both Ajla Tomljanovic (first round) and Magda Linette (second round), but persevered as she tends to do at the Bois de Boulogne.
Now into the business end, Halep will look at her draw and see a clear path to the last eight unless there’s (another) shock upset.
There are no other seeds left in her quarter. Not only that, with the upsets of Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams on Saturday, Halep is by far the most experienced player left in the top half.
Of the eight players to make the fourth round in the top half, four have never made it this far in a major including Halep’s next opponent, 18-year-old Iga Swiatek.
The young Pole, ranked no.104 in the world, has had an extraordinary tournament thus far, recording bagel sets against each of her three opponents. Imagine the headlines if the defending champion crashes out to someone outside the top 100 come Monday evening.
By the end of Saturday, there were only three women left in the draw who had won a major before: Halep, Sloane Stephens and Garbine Muguruza. The latter two will clash on Sunday.
Halep has to be favourite to make it through to the final.
But, in a tournament of huge shocks on the women’s side, don’t be surprised if we have another new major winner next weekend.