Paris in the springtime can cast a spell on anyone and for Simona Halep the effect was immediate. “It was love at first sight,” the 27-year-old Romanian told The Independent as she recalled her first visit to the city in 2007 to play in the French Open junior event. “And I still have that love in my heart.”
Twelve years on and Halep is back here as the defending champion, having claimed the first Grand Slam title of her career in Paris last year after three successive losses in finals, two of them on Court Philippe Chatrier.
Returning to Roland Garros, where this year’s tournament begins on Sunday, is always a joy for Halep, but she says that playing tennis is one of many when in the French capital. When she has the chance the world No 3 likes to take holidays in the city.
“The last time I had a holiday in Paris was two years ago,” she recalled. “Last year I didn’t have the time to do that, but whenever I have two or three days free I love to spend them in Paris.
“I love the buildings, I love the streets. I like to just get an ice cream and go walking, usually on the Champs-Elysees. I like the people too. I just love the whole atmosphere about the city.”
Halep has a taste for the food here – despite admitting that she usually chooses nothing more adventurous than steak and chips – and always takes the chance to go window-shopping. “I love fashion,” she said. “I always like to check on the new things that are in the shops. It’s not that I particularly wear the latest fashion things, but I like to check them out.”
The love of Paris is mutual. The public’s hearts went out to Halep when she lost in the finals here in 2014 and 2017 to Maria Sharapova and Jelena Ostapenko respectively. Both were agonising defeats. Sharapova won 6-4 in the deciding set after a gruelling battle that lasted more than three hours, while Ostapenko recovered from a set and 0-3 down to create one of the biggest upsets in the tournament’s history.
Twelve months ago Halep had the vast majority of the crowd’s support when she beat Sloane Stephens in the final. There were plenty of Romanian flags in Court Philippe Chatrier, but Halep also had the backing of most of the neutrals.
“I’ve always liked the Parisians and there’s always a good atmosphere whenever I play at Roland Garros,” she said. “I get good support in every match. They’re great with me. There are usually a lot of Romanians there too. The country’s not too far away and there are a lot of Romanians working in France too. It all helps to make me feel at home.”
Halep will begin her title defence against Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic. The 27-year-old Romanian looks to have a reasonably straightforward passage until the quarter-finals, when she is seeded to meet Petra Kvitova. She could then face Naomi Osaka, the world No 1, or Serena Williams in the semi-finals. Karolina Pliskova and Kiki Bertens are the top seeds in the other half of the draw.
While Halep has enjoyed plenty of success at other Grand Slam tournaments – she reached last year’s final at the Australian Open and is a past semi-finalist at both Wimbledon and the US Open – it is at Roland Garros where she has excelled. She won the junior title in 2008 and has played in three of the last five finals here.
“I grew up playing on clay,” Halep said. “It’s the Grand Slam where I feel my best and it’s my favourite city. If you put everything together it almost feels like home to me.”
Nevertheless, in her first four appearances in the main draw here Halep won only one match. On two occasions she was beaten by Sam Stosur, a former French Open runner-up and doubles champion.
“It wasn’t easy to play her at the beginning of your career on clay because she loves the courts,” Halep said. “Maybe I didn’t play my best at the beginning, but then I got used to the courts. At Roland Garros it’s not normal clay. The courts are a little bit faster and a little bit harder. You have to get used to it.”
Everything changed for Halep in 2014, particularly after she beat Svetlana Kuznetsova, a former champion, in the quarter-finals. “That match was huge for me,” Halep recalled. “It was a great result. She has a really strong forehand and to beat her on clay was really important. That match gave me confidence that I was really there at the top level.”
Until her victory in last year’s final Halep had never touched the Suzanne Lenglen Cup, which is presented to the champion. “I hadn’t won it, so I didn’t want to touch it,” she said. “I felt that I didn’t deserve to touch it.”
Halep said that finally holding the trophy last year had been a very special moment. “It’s almost like I can still feel in my fingers what the trophy felt like,” she said.
Despite her love of Paris, Halep has yet to speak French in public, though she understands most of what she hears. “I can speak a few words, but Romanian is actually more similar to Italian than it is to French,” she said. “I would love to learn to speak French one day. Hopefully I can do that.”