Only Serena Williams won more titles on the WTA tour last year than Simona Halep. And only Serena and Agnieszka Radwanska won more matches.
Before 2013, Halep had reached three finals and lost the lot. Twelve months ago, she was the 47th-best player in the world. She’s now up to number 11 and, unsurprisingly, was named the most improved woman on the WTA tour last year.
The Romanian won six titles in just five months in 2013, an astonishing improvement, and beat former US Open champion Sam Stosur in the last two finals of the year.
It’s a remarkable ascent, the reasons for it not immediately apparent. Dig deeper and it looks very much like a mix of the years of determination and practice finally paying off.
“I didn’t believe when I started this season that I could win six titles,” she said.
“I just wanted to play more aggressive, to play more inside the court. I did well, and I want to keep this feeling for next year.”
She’s certainly consistent; the 22-year-old is playing her 14th consecutive Grand Slam tournament this January, but it was only in New York last September that she broke through to the last 16, where lost to Flavia Pennetta.
She’s at this stage again now in Melbourne with Jelena Jankovic up next, but Halep holds a 2-1 lead over the Serb, winning their last two encounters. Maria Sharapova looms as her likely last eight foe should she get past Jankovic.
The final 16 of a Slam is where the woman from Constanta on the edge of the Black Sea in Romania, a city founded some 600 years ago, has worked towards all along.
It’s widely known that in 2009, Halep underwent breast reduction surgery in order to help her move more freely on court, emblematic of her focus and drive for the peak of the sport
There are many more taller players out there – Halep stands at just 168cm – but she loves to belt the ball and lists the serve as her weapon of choice. Her movement is fluid and confidence clearly is not a factor at present.
It would be unwise to ignore Halep. She is on a run few others can dream of (Steffi Graf was the last player to win her first six WTA crowns in the same year) and still retains the advantage of being something of an unknown.
Given her recent results, that relative anonymity will not last. Her inexperience is compounded by her lack of a current coach, a tangible her manager, the fellow Romanian former French Open champion Virginia Ruzici, is constantly pushing her to act upon.
It seems though that Halep has always known her own mind, and credits her improvement over the last few years – not just in 2013 – in reasonable part to a better mindset.
“In juniors I played like I do now,” she told Sports Illustrated last year.
“I wanted to be aggressive. But after (juniors) I changed some shots like my forehand, and I was a little down in my mind. This year I started to hit the ball and believe in my forehand. My mind is more relaxed when I can hit the ball, be aggressive and move well.”
Ruzici says confidence if the key for Halep.
“The main goal in 2014 is to keep this confidence; more important than which tournament she’s going to win is to keep that confidence. Then the rest will follow.”
Halep plays Jankovic in the second match of the day session at Hisense Arena on Monday.