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Simona Halep — The WTA’s Most Important Player in 2018

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

If Caroline Wozniacki wins the WTA Finals, she might be the WTA Player of the Year for 2018. Naomi Osaka and Aryna Sabalenka were the two foremost breakout stars, the young players who put their respective stamps on the WTA Tour. However, if there was an award for the Most Important Player of the year in the world of WTA tennis, it could be only one player: Simona Halep.

Angelique Kerber won a third major — pushing her past Victoria Azarenka and Li Na — while becoming a first-time Wimbledon champion. In the larger context of tennis history, the German also delivered a 2018 to remember, one laden with historical significance. It’s not as though the above-mentioned players didn’t do immensely important things in 2018… but Halep’s year was greater.

No, it wasn’t so much the ability to go back-to-back in securing the year-end No. 1 ranking, though that is a very big deal on its own terms.

It wasn’t just the first major title at Roland Garros, where she had come so close two previous times.

It wasn’t just the ability to make semifinals in eight of her first 12 tournaments of the year and the quarterfinals in 10 of 12, before injuries hijacked her autumn campaign.

It wasn’t just that Halep played in the best and most memorable matches of the year — whether in the Australian Open semifinals against Kerber and the final against Wozniacki, or against Sloane Stephens in the Montreal final.

It wasn’t just this moment Halep was able to have in front of her Romanian fans at a time when her country is going through so much political turmoil and needs sources of positive inspiration:

It wasn’t JUST any of those things, in isolation, which made Halep’s year so important. It was precisely the fact that 2018 combined ALL of those elements into one profoundly significant package.

Halep was the WTA’s most consistent player (with Kerber close behind) in a year when consistency largely eluded the best women’s tennis players in the world.

Halep joined Serena Williams as the only two WTA players to make two major finals this year.

Halep’s achievements, particularly at Roland Garros, carried coach Darren Cahill into a higher level of tennis excellence. The man who coached ATP superstars such as Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt can now say that he has guided one of the WTA’s brightest lights across the threshold and into the pantheon of major champions. That is a historically resonant aspect of Halep’s 2018 season as well.

Halep did everything that she did in 2018 after a less-than-imposing performance at the 2017 WTA Finals. It was easy to doubt Halep’s ability to finally rise to the next level, even though she ended 2017 as the WTA’s No. 1 player. The woman who defeated Halep in a high-level Australian Open final — Wozniacki — knows well what it means to be World No. 1 without a major title. Halep won big in 2018 only after enduring the wrenching heartbreak of an athlete who had been snake-bitten in huge moments.

Elena Dementieva never reached that first major victory podium as a singles player. Neither did Dinara Safina. Neither did Helena Sukova, inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame earlier this year due to her doubles prowess.

Halep’s 2018 carried the sweet taste of the nectar only a major title can provide. Wozniacki’s breakthrough was similarly cathartic and important. Osaka’s first major could become important in the context of Japanese tennis, and it could also become more important if Osaka’s career takes off as many expect it to.

For now, though, in the world we currently inhabit, Halep’s ability to give Romania a bright light in the midst of difficulties is something which carries unique resonance and power. Much has been said about Halep’s inability and/or refusal to speak against Ion Tiriac and Ilie Nastase, two vestiges of — to put it mildly — a different worldview.

As I close this column, I won’t try to litigate that particular issue by weighing in on whether Halep is wise to approach the matter in the way she has chosen. That’s a different conversation for another time.

What I DO feel confident in saying is this: Because of Halep’s achievements in 2018, she is putting herself in a position — 15 to 20 years from now, when Tiriac and Nastase fade away — to be the next leadership voice and guiding power broker in Romanian sports. Tiriac is 79 years old, Nastase 72. In 15 years, they will no longer be at the center of the power movements in Romania’s sports culture. Halep will be in her early 40s.

Wozniacki, Osaka, Kerber — they all did hugely important things on the WTA Tour in 2018. Yet, Simona Halep forged a tennis season which could acquire so much more significance in the larger course of not just tennis history or sports history, but world history.

As a fellow named Nadal once said: “We gonna see, no?”

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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