In Her Charleston Debut, Simona Halep Makes Long-Awaited Return to Green Clay

In Her Charleston Debut, Simona Halep Makes Long-Awaited Return to Green Clay

INDIAN WELLS, CA - MARCH 09: Simona Halep of Romania celebrates her win over Kristyna Pliskova of Czech Republic during the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on March 9, 2018 in Indian Wells, California. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

The tennis record books can’t confirm it, but Simona Halep, the two-time Grand Slam winner from Romania, swears she’s played on green clay before.

Somewhere, sometime.

“The last time I played on green clay was more than 10 years ago, in the U.K.,” Halep, 28, tells the Volvo Car Open in an interview. “That was a long, long time ago. So I’m very excited to get back on that surface and to see how it feels.”

Halep, who has been ranked as high as No.1 in the world, is set to make her Charleston debut when the tournament returns to the Lowcountry April 4 – 12, and – even though she hasn’t played on green clay in a decade – the diminutive baseliner who packs plenty of punch is surely one of the odds-on favorites in a stacked singles field.

“Simona will love the green clay because her game suits that style: She’s an incredible defender and gets so many balls back that it will be tough to get by, through or around her,” says Tracy Austin, Volvo Car Open Tournament Ambassador, and twice a winner of this event, in 1979 and 1980.

Halep, as avid tennis fans know, first broke through on the WTA as a clay-court specialist: She was the French Open junior champion at 16, then six years later finished as runner-up there in 2014, her first big run at a Major.

In 2018, having become a mainstay in the top tier of the women’s game, she captured her first Grand Slam by beating Sloane Stephens in the final in Paris. She added a Wimbledon title less than a year ago, playing exceptional tennis against Serena Williams in a straight-set final on Centre Court.

LONDON, ENGLAND – JULY 03: Simona Halep of Romania celebrates a point against Kurumi Nara of Japan during their Ladies’ Singles first round match on day two of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 3, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

“I’m not a big hitter, but I like to find the angles, I like to run on court and I like to build each point,” says Halep, who stands 5-foot-6.

Austin confirms that: “She puts it out there every point. She’s someone (recreational players) can relate to because she doesn’t really overpower anyone; she has to work for her points. She’s fun to watch because she’s so athletic. She’s a pleasant person and I think the Charleston crowd will enjoy watching her personally and her tennis, tactically.”

Halep has become a national hero in her home country of Romania, once a gymnastics-mad nation. The gold medal-winning Romanian gymnast, Nadia Comaneci, is a close friend.

For the 2020 season, Halep says her eyes are set on Olympic glory, too.

“My goal is to win a medal at the Olympics for my country,” she says, then adding: “But every tournament I play is a goal… it’s important, every week I play. I give everything I can every time I’m on the court.”

What else does the Charleston newcomer want you to know about her?

“I’m sociable, friendly, happy, relaxed off court,” she says with a smile. “I like to walk around the city I’m in, on the streets and sidewalks, and just have no goal. I love shopping. I want to get the feeling for shopping in Charleston.”

She breaks into another smile. (Note: She really likes shopping.)

Halep has re-joined forces with famed Australian coach Darren Cahill during the off-season, after the two won the French Open together in 2018. She started the year strong: Making the semifinals of the Australian Open and winning her 20th career singles title in Dubai in February.

That victory in the Middle East kept her safely inside the top 10 (she’s ranked No.2 in this week’s rankings), bringing her stay inside the world’s 10 best to 319 consecutive weeks. It’s the longest active streak on tour.

MONTREAL, QC – AUGUST 12: Simona Halep of Romania reacts after taking the first set 7-6 in a tie break against Sloane Stephens in the final during day seven of the Rogers Cup at IGA Stadium on August 12, 2018 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

In her decade-plus time on tour, Halep has gone from junior success story to under-sized senior to top 5 contender to major champion and national hero. Wherever she plays, Romanian fans come out in droves.

She says she’s matured plenty in that time.

“I’ve learned how to communicate with people, how to share the nice moments or the tough moments with the people around me,” she says. “I see the fans and appreciate them and how great they are for women’s tennis. It’s been a great education through sport for me.”

Another page in her education: Seeing Charleston for the first time. She can’t wait. And neither can we.

“(I’ve heard) it’s very friendly, that everyone is nice to you,” she says. “I’ve heard the city is like everyone is a family. I like warm people, so I’m sure I’m going to have a good time there. I’ve never been to Charleston, so I’m really looking forward to going there.”

20 years 20th Year Celebration Simona Halep