Simona Halep

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Simona Halep, Nadia Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

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How did Nadia Comaneci and Simona Halep, two generational Romanian sports icons, come to be so friendly that Comaneci flies from Oklahoma to Europe to attend her matches?

Simple, Comaneci says. Halep is part of the family.

Has been ever since Halep was welcomed into it by Comaneci and the nation’s other retired athletic legends, soccer player Gheorghe Hagi and tennis player Ilie Nastase at an ATP event in Bucharest in April 2014.

“I had never seen her before,” said Comaneci, who knew some about tennis given the success of Nastase, a seven-time major champion, and Virginia Ruzici, the 1978 French Open winner and only Romanian woman to win a major until Halep. “But I knew from Ilie that he said she’s going to be a big star. This is our next champion.”

A month later, Halep made her first Slam final at the French Open. It took four more years before Halep claimed her first major title, also at Roland Garros, then another at Wimbledon in July.

The most memorable interaction between Comaneci and Halep came immediately after that breakthrough 2018 French Open final. As Halep climbed toward her player box in victory, the first person she embraced was the gymnastics great.

“It was the easiest way to climb,” Comaneci joked while at the U.S. Open last week. “It was very nice and emotional — for me.”

She has attended a Broadway show with Halep, wearing matching coats they bought together, and watched her play live at three of the four Grand Slams, plus at Indian Wells, Calif., Madrid and Bucharest.

Comaneci followed the 2018 French Open semifinals on TV from Oklahoma, where she lives with husband and fellow Olympic champion gymnast Bart Conner and 13-year-old son Dylan.

“It was 5 in the morning, finished at 7, and by 11 o’clock I was on the phone with United Airlines,” said Comaneci, who attended the previous year’s French Open, where Halep was upset by 47th-ranked Latvian Jelena Ostapenko in the final.

Two days later, Comaneci’s flight was late landing in Paris. She deplaned around 11 a.m. and arrived on the grounds just as Halep and Sloane Stephens began the final.

Though Halep didn’t follow gymnastics as a kid, Comaneci was still an inspiration. A symbol that an athlete from Romania could become best in the world, although it came under far different circumstances in the 1970s.

“To have a great champion in your box, it gives you power, that she appreciates what I’m doing,” Halep said at the 2015 U.S. Open, which Comaneci also attended.

For Comaneci, to see Halep be feted in Bucharest for her 2018 French Open title reminded her of coming back from the 1976 Montreal Olympics with five medals, including three golds, and seven perfect 10s.

More than 20,000 Halep admirers filled Bucharest’s Arena Națională. She cried.

For Comaneci, her reaction as a 14-year-old returning to Romania in 1976 was a bit different. She cried, too. She lost a doll she had been carrying.

“I got out of the plane, and I heard there were 10,000 people,” she said. “I got back in because I didn’t understand why people came this time and never came before. I did the same routines. I didn’t understand the magnitude of what I had done.”

Communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu ordered a celebration, the likes of which had never been seen in Romania.

“It was scary,” Comaneci wrote in her book. “All those years when nobody cared and now, suddenly, everyone was pushing, pulling, and trying to touch me.”

Thirteen years later, Comaneci defected. She and six others trudged overnight through the woods and into Hungary and, two nights later, Austria. She fell through a frozen-over lake and navigated knee-deep, bone-chilling water. She climbed seven barbed-wire fences. She feared of land mines and being shot in the back.

Halep hasn’t dealt with anything like that. But she was scrutinized for those four years between making her first Slam final and, after three runners-up, lifting that first major trophy. She is Romania’s biggest sports star at the moment, said Adrian Toca, a journalist for the website Treizecizero.

Romania’s main sports newspaper, Gazeta Sporturilor, has put her on the front page for several straight days during Grand Slams. Before the 2018 Australian Open final, it photoshopped Halep into a Wonder Woman outfit.

“It kind of is a lot of pressure,” Toca said. “The public and the media [in Romania] can be very demanding of athletes, sometimes beyond reasonable.

“Nadia helped Simona a lot just by being next to her in important, good or difficult moments. And she wasn’t there just at the big wins. She also supported Simona at tournaments other than Slams.”

Comaneci said she and Halep do not discuss tennis or even what it’s like to be in the spotlight.

“Just giggle about … girls stuff, let’s put it this way,” Comaneci said.

Something else they have in common is the Olympic Games.

Halep said after winning the 2018 French Open that her next goal was an Olympic medal, which is rare for a tennis player. It is one of the few Olympic sports where an Olympic medal is not the pinnacle of achievement. Many would rather take any Grand Slam title, even if they already have one.

When Halep arrived in Bucharest for another celebration after her Wimbledon title in July, a main story out of the press conference was a confirmation that she would be Romania’s flag bearer in Tokyo.

That honor is not decided for most countries until the weeks or days before the Games. Technically, Halep hasn’t even qualified for the Olympics yet (though she is all but mathematically assured).

“Simona loves her country very much, and she is not just saying it, but showing it,” Toca said, noting that Halep played one of her best matches while representing her country at the Fed Cup in April, but Romania still fell to France in the semifinals. “She was affected by that loss.

“For the Romanian fans, especially at this point in her career, I think they will be grateful for any medal. Especially considering that we’re not amongst favorites for too many medals, and the current state of Romanian sports, it’s not that awesome.”

True, the men’s soccer team hasn’t qualified for a World Cup in this millennium. Its lone match win at a European Championship came in 2000. The women’s gymnastics team failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics after earning a medal at every Games since Comaneci’s debut in Montreal.

Overall, Romania earned one gold in Rio and four total medals, its lowest output in either category since 1952. Consider that Romania finished second in gold medals to the U.S. at the 1984 Los Angeles Games boycotted by Soviet nations.

“The young generation knows who we are because of their parents and because of, thank goodness, YouTube,” Comaneci said, according to an as-told-to story for ESPN.com last year. “Her win is great for Romanian kids to understand they don’t have to be born somewhere else to be the best.”

Those children now have an athlete to emulate whose recognition rivals that of Comaneci. Perhaps surpasses it.

“If Nadia walks down a street in Bucharest, she would be greeted, congratulated or people would just smile at her,” Toca said. “As for Simona, I don’t think she can afford to walk down a street right now, as she would probably have a hard time actually walking. Everyone would probably want a selfie or an autograph or just congratulate her.”

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Simona Halep follows Wimbledon win with Romania Olympic honor

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New Wimbledon champion Simona Halep appears set to be a flag bearer at the 2020 Olympic Opening Ceremony after a smile and nod from the president of Romania’s Olympic Committee.

Halep discussed the idea at a press conference in Bucharest on Monday, with the Olympic official Mihai Covaliu standing behind her. Covaliu was asked to confirm and obliged, according to Romanian reports.

Halep’s primary goal since winning her first Grand Slam title at the 2018 French Open is an Olympic medal. She repeated that desire after sweeping Serena Williams in Saturday’s final at the All England Club.

Halep skipped the Rio Games, citing Zika virus concerns three weeks before the Opening Ceremony. She did play at the 2012 London Games, losing in the first round when she was ranked No. 48.

Halep, who is friends with Romania’s most famous Olympian, gymnast Nadia Comaneci, would not be Romania’s first Olympic tennis medalist.

Florin Mergea and Horia Tecău took men’s doubles silver in Rio.

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Serena Williams beaten by Simona Halep in Wimbledon final, denied history

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WIMBLEDON, England — Clutching her trophy 20 minutes after becoming Wimbledon’s champion, Simona Halep checked out the board inside Centre Court that lists tournament winners. Below all of the mentions of Serena Williams, her opponent in Saturday’s final, there already was inscribed: “Miss S. Halep.”

Halep was not concerned with preventing Williams from winning a 24th Grand Slam title. All Halep cared about was winning her first at the All England Club. And she played pretty much perfectly.

On top of her game right from start to finish, Halep overwhelmed Williams 6-2, 6-2 in stunning fashion for her second major championship. The whole thing took less than an hour as Williams lost her third Slam final in a row as she tries to equal Margaret Court’s record for most major trophies in tennis history.

“I’m very sure,” Halep said, “that was the best match of my life.”

The No. 7-seeded Romanian made a mere three unforced errors, a remarkably low total and 23 fewer than Williams.

Not bad for someone who has been frank about how jittery she has gotten in past big matches and began the day having lost nine of 10 matchups against Williams. But after losing each of her first three major finals, Halep now has won two straight, including at last year’s French Open.

“She literally played out of her mind. Congratulations, Simona,” Williams said during the trophy ceremony. “It was a little bit ‘a deer in the headlights’ for me.”

Williams also lost in straight sets against Angelique Kerber in the Wimbledon final a year ago, and against Naomi Osaka at the U.S. Open last September.

“I just have to figure out a way to win a final,” Williams said.

The 37-year-old American hasn’t won a tournament since the 2017 Australian Open, when she set the professional-era record of 23 Grand Slam championships (Court won 13 of her titles against amateur competition).

Williams was pregnant when she won in Australia and then took more than a year off the tour; her daughter, Olympia, was born in September 2017.

Since returning to tennis, Williams has dealt with injuries but still managed to remain among the game’s elite. In part because of a bad left knee, she only had played 12 matches all season until Wimbledon.

“Just got to keep fighting,” Williams said, “and just keep trying.”

Didn’t take long on Saturday for the 27-year-old Halep to demonstrate this was not going to be easy for Williams.

Not by any means.

Showing off the talents and traits that once lifted her to No. 1 in the rankings, Halep never really gave Williams a chance to get into the match.

“I’ve always been intimidated a little bit when I faced Serena. She’s an inspiration for everyone and the model for everyone,” Halep said. “Today, I decided before the match that I’m going to focus on myself and on the final of (a) Grand Slam, not on her. That’s why I was able to play my best, to be relaxed, and to be able to be positive and confident against her.”

Halep tracked down everything, as is her wont. She didn’t merely play defense, though, managing to go from retrieving an apparent point-ending stroke by Williams to lashing a winner of her own in a blink.

“I was over-hitting it, trying to go for too much,” Williams said. “She was getting just a tremendous amount of balls back.”

Her returns were exceptional, repeatedly getting back serves that left Williams’ racket at 115 mph or more.

On this cloudy, cool afternoon, with the temperature in the low 70s (low 20s Celsius), Halep began with a pair of service breaks and even delivered the match’s first ace, at 106 mph, which put her out front 4-0 after 11 astonishing minutes.

Halep won 14 of the first 18 points, with many in the crowd roaring for each of the rare ones that went Williams’ way. Halep produced eight winners before a single unforced error, avoiding a miscue until the seventh game.

Williams, in stark contrast, came out looking a bit tight, short-arming shots and accumulating nine unforced errors before conjuring up a single winner. She spoke after her semifinal victory about trying to remain calm on court, and that she did, even in the face of a player who was at her very best.

Williams would place a hand on her hip. Or put a palm up and look at her guest box, as if thinking, “What can I do?” Williams’ greatest show of emotion came after she stretched for a forehand volley winner on the second set’s second point. She leaned forward and yelled, “Come on!”

But the comeback never came. Halep broke to lead 3-2 in that set when Williams pushed a backhand long, and there wasn’t much left from there.

Halep only had been as far as the semifinals once at Wimbledon until now. But she was determined to change that and said she told the locker-room attendants at the beginning of the tournament she wanted to grab a title to earn lifetime membership in the All England Club.

“So here I am,” she said Saturday, the fortnight done, her trophy won. “It was one of my motivations before this tournament. So now I am happy.”

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