Simona Halep simply sensational
PARIS -- All right, let's get it out of the way.
Yes, Simona Halep had breast reduction surgery. It was already common knowledge among tennis fans. In fact, it was old news because she had the surgery five years ago in order to move more comfortably on the court. Casual fans took notice of it only when she gained the spotlight by reaching Saturday's French Open final -- her first Grand Slam final -- against Maria Sharapova. And even then, general sports fans know about it because the media brought it up.
It's a sensitive topic and a sensational one. Bringing up breast reduction is a way to drive readership. So much so that if you do a Web search, you'll find many stories that have "Halep" and "breast surgery" in the headline but no real mention of said surgery in the story.
Halep, for her part, declines to talk about the surgery now. "It was a long time ago and it's something personal, so I'm sorry," she said after her quarterfinal win. "About tennis, I will talk with pleasure."
And she's absolutely right. The headlines should not be about a personal issue from five years ago but about her great tennis that has seen her surge from No. 47 two years ago to No. 4 today -- and to No. 3 when this tournament ends, whether she beats Sharapova or not.
And there is a good chance she will beat Sharapova. Not only is Halep playing the greatest tennis of her life now, she is playing the best tennis of anyone here. While Sharapova has been extended to three sets her past three matches, Halep not only has yet to lose a set, she has only once lost more than four games in a set -- and that was in the semifinal.
"I think in the last year she's proven that's she's able to have great results consistently," Sharapova said. "And in terms of ranking and where she's positioning herself, I think that's a very great quality in a player, to be able to be so consistent from week-in, week-out."
First, Halep started winning at the lower level, taking six titles during the 2013 season. Then she upped her game at the majors as well. After many early exits in Slams, she reached the fourth round at last year's US Open, the quarterfinals at this year's Australian Open and now the finals at Roland Garros.
"I think the click was in Rome last year when I beat [Agnieszka] Radwanska,'' Halep said. "I thought after that match that I can play at higher level to beat the top players. I started to be more aggressive. At that moment I had more confidence in myself."
Halep is good on all surfaces -- she was the only player to win a WTA event on each last year -- and moves wonderfully on all of them.
"She's smart. I compare her to Martina Hingis," analyst and former player Mary Carillo said. "A very good court press. Makes far fewer unforced errors than anyone around her. Very solid. Beautiful mover. When she gets her chances [she finds] angles on the court that most players don't even find."
Winning here won't be easy, naturally. While Sharapova lost the first set of her past three matches, she grew tougher as each went on. She has been on center stage before -- this is her third consecutive final at Roland Garros -- and knows how to handle it. This will be a new experience for Halep. She has played Sharapova three times and lost each. That includes Madrid this year, when Halep won the first set then dropped the next two.
"I don't know how I have to play to beat Maria," Halep said after her semifinal victory. "But I have to take that revenge. I will fight for this one. I played a really good match in Madrid first set. I started really well. I was very fast on court, and I opened the angles very well. But she came back very, very well and she hit strong, stronger than me at that moment.
"Now, I have to be aggressive again, to play fast, like my style, and to stay there with the nerves. It will be a tough moment for me. I know. I'm sure that will be. But I have to be happy and just to enjoy."
If Halep doesn't win Saturday, she has time. She's only 22, part of that young generation that has played so well here. "Barring injuries, she's going to be around a long time," Carillo said.
Carillo says the breast surgery is an old story, if it's any story whatsoever now. There are many body types in sports, and undergoing surgery to improve your play may be more sensational but really is no different than losing weight to become fitter and faster. If Prince Fielder had lost weight five years ago, would it still make headlines today?
Being able to move more easily on the court helped Halep rise from 210 in 2009 to 81 in 2010. But it was maturing, gaining mental strength and improving her tennis in many other aspects that allowed her to rise beyond that, to the elite level she is at today: a top-five player the world will watch play for a major championship.