Occasionally, sports coughs up an athlete who becomes famous, even beloved, less for his or her athletic accomplishments or prowess than some mysterious quality of personality, or of the public’s unspoken need. For an extreme example, look at Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, whose heroic failure as a Britain’s first ski jumper in 1988 endeared him to a worldwide audience.
And consider the author of “Linsanity,” New York City’s wild if short-lived love affair with Jeremy Lin, a point guard for the NBA’s New York Knicks. A modest, unassuming, undrafted former Harvard student, Lin was promoted to starting guard and led an astonishing turnaround by the struggling team in the winter of 2012—until reality caught up. By the time the bubble burst, journeyman Lin was a household name from Orchard Street in Manhattan to Grand Concourse in The Bronx.
Something similar seems to be happening with Simona Halep, although to be fair, she’s already achieved greater status in her own sphere than either of those two men ever did.
Wherever Halep goes, whomever she plays, the chant is likely to begin early and continue until the conclusion of the match: Si-Moe-Na. . . Si-Moe-Na. . . Si. . .Moe. . .Na. Sure, many of those fans are also waving Romanian flags. But the entire body of spectators tends to get drawn into “Simania” as her matches progress. It happens time and again.
“They are coming everywhere I play, so that’s amazing,” Halep said in Miami a few weeks ago, where a packed house at Crandon Park tried to pull her through what might have been the best match of the entire women’s tournament, a 7-5 in-the-third semifinal loss to top-seeded Serena Williams—notionally the hometown favorite. “There are many, many people in the crowd, so it’s just amazing. It’s really nice to hear your name during the points, between the points. It’s nice to have people supporting you everywhere.”
There was nothing special about that occasion, either. It’s been like that in many places all over the world for the 23-year-old with the chipmunk cheeks and happy feet. No less an authority than Serena can shed light on why Halep is so popular. Describing herself as a “fan” of Halep, Williams said after her win in Miami: “I like her attitude. I like how she gets pumped up. I like how she fights. I like how she plays. I think it’s fun to watch, and different. It’s a refreshing type of game.”
It’s good word, “refreshing.” Halep’s seemingly boundless energy, her talent for making spectacular retrieves that often force opponents onto a back foot, and her ability to redirect her opponents’ shots are not just appealing, they combine to make her game resemble an exuberant, almost wanton exercise in athleticism.
Halep, who hammered Serena Williams by the nearly unheard of score of 6-0, 6-2 in the round-robin stage of last year’s WTA Finals (Williams exacted revenge for that loss with an equally convincing 6-3, 6-0 win in the final), won the biggest title of her career thus far in March, at Indian Wells. Perhaps fittingly, she defeated one of the few women who bear comparison with Halep as an athlete, Jelena Jankovic.
Afterward, Jankovic summed up why the vast majority of women find it so hard to beat Halep. “She just is going to run all these balls down. She’s very solid. She’s very consistent. She’s going to fight like crazy. She’s not giving you anything. If you’re gonna win, you have to take everything in your control and risk and execute and go after your shots.”
In other words, Halep forces players who like to take their chances with the rally game out of their comfort zone. She asks more of them than they can deliver, or can produce over the course of a long match. Which is just the kind of match Halep likes to play. Over the month encompassing Indian Wells and Miami, six of her 10 matches were three-setters.
That excellent record in close matches also marked a step forward in what appears to be Halep’s inevitable march toward a Grand Slam title. Earlier in her big push to the top, which started roughly 36 months ago, she still had a tendency to throw the towel in when she was playing badly, or when she felt tired.
“If you win a title, it’s really tough to play next week again, to start another tournament,” she said after playing her heart out against Williams in Miami. “But, you know, I did important step in my career (this week). Last year when I won a title, I withdraw. I was (too) tired, or I was (too) injured, to play in the next tournament. Now is different.”
Halep had the road to Damascus experience at the Australian Open, where, seeded third, she was beaten in the quarterfinals to No. 10 seed Ekaterina Makarova, 6-4, 6-0. She offered only token resistance in the second set, and admitted that she threw in the towel. “I was very disappointed by myself after that match,” Halep said. “I said I will fight to the end—always—and that was the last match where I didn’t fight.”
A large part of Halep’s appeal lies in the fact that she’s the quintessential “small woman” making her mark in a game dominated by bigger, stronger athletes. But there’s more to Simania than her tennis. It’s her personality, in a quiet but real way. Halep isn’t as vivacious as Caroline Wozniacki, or as intellectually stimulating as Andrea Petkovic. She doesn’t have the droll humor of Maria Sharapova, nor the sunny disposition of that human smiley-face emoji, Ana Ivanovic.
Halep’s most alluring quality is her modesty, which is comprehensive. As her manager, former Roland Garros champion Virginia Ruzici, told me in Paris last year: “At home Romanians see her as a modest person, a humble person. And for this she has become very much loved and famous.”
In many ways, Halep is the perfect underdog. Yet here she is, No. 3 in the world rankings. She probably needs far less emotional propping up than almost anyone she finds herself playing, but fans love her, and chant her name, over and over. It must be nice to be Simona Halep. She certainly thinks it is.
“I have many fans everywhere I go,” she acknowledged a few weeks ago. “It’s very important for me to have fans. Tennis is nice. I love it. Now I have more pleasure on court when I see that people are coming especially for me.”
Eddie the Eagle should have had it so good.