Simona Halep’s Steady Rise

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Simona Halep has put together a career year in 2013.

The transition from the junior to the professional circuit in tennis is never an easy one. Aside from the daunting physical transition between the two circuits, the tennis itself could classify as a different sport. Strategies that are successful on the junior circuit rarely, if ever, translate to winning matches on the WTA and ATP tours. Over the past half-decade, many of the most successful juniors have been relegated to nothing more than journeyman status on the big stage.

Removed from the constraints of the WTA’s Age Eligibility Rules in 2009, Simona Halep made her first career WTA final in 2010, her first top 100 season, but came up short against Iveta Benesova in Fes; she returned to the finals in Fes the following year, but also came out second-best against Alberta Brianti. Halep’s breakthrough began to take shape in the middle of last season, as she reached her biggest career final to date at the Premier event in Brussels before falling to Agnieszka Radwanska; she ended 2012 inside the top 50 at No. 47.

Long considered yet another talented and successful junior whose level on the professional tour had stagnated, Halep’s 2013 has been a revelation. The 21-year-old Romanian, who was the Roland Garros junior champion in 2009, is currently at a career-high ranking of No. 30 in the world and is projected to rise even higher on the back of her performance in Budapest this week.

Halep arrived in 2013 when she had the tournament of her career to date at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in May. She recorded three of the biggest scalps of her career there, as she qualified and defeated Svetlana Kuznetsova, Agnieszka Radwanska and two-time champion Jelena Jankovic to reach the semifinals. Following that performance, Halep finally came out on top in not just one WTA final, but two; her first title came on clay in the inaugural event in Nürnberg and the second came less than a week later on the grass courts of ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

Although she has, to this point, mathematically risen just 17 spots in the rankings since the beginning of the year, Halep’s transformation has been more impressive than the numbers suggest.

Having been well-known for what she removed, rather than added, to her game to compete with the big girls, Halep’s on court mentality has undergone a revolution in 2013. The Romanian had previously been at her most content camped out behind the baseline, running corner to corner until her opponent self-imploded. Over the past 12 months, Halep has evolved into more of a classic counterpuncher; she possesses some of the most cleanly produced and technically sound groundstrokes on the WTA Tour. As she is slight of stature, she will never be in complete control of all of the matches she plays, but she now recognizes when she has opportunities to take matches into her hands.

Previously known as a clay-court specialist, Halep’s unwillingness to take the initiative in matches proved to be her undoing on faster surfaces. Winning two titles in less than two weeks on two different surfaces is impressive at any level, but particularly when making the transition from clay to grass. Halep’s most impressive performance during that streak came in the second round in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, when she defeated top-seeded Roberta Vinci while dropping only one game.

Halep might not have the flashy weapons or media attention of some of her contemporaries, but her rise has been the result of nothing more than hard work. However, she has been hindered by unkind draws in slams. First, Halep drew Carla Suarez Navarro in the opening round at Roland Garros. In the most open section of the draw, either player had a chance to make the second week; it was Suarez Navarro who came out on top in a tough three-set affair, and she eventually made the fourth round. Having just missed out on a seeding at Wimbledon, Halep reached the second round before falling to Li Na in another three-set battle.

One impressive run does not a season make, as the WTA rankings reward a balance between consistent performances and notable success. Halep will pass Sorana Cirstea in the rankings on Monday, and will be the Romanian No. 1 for the first time in her career. With a legitimate chance to add to her title haul this weekend in Budapest and going forward, and with two-thirds of the 2013 season in the rearview mirror, Halep’s steady rise makes her one of the leading contenders for the WTA’s Most Improved Player of the Year award.

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