June 14, 2024

On a visit to Bucharest for a forthcoming, no-holds-barred interview with the Romanian star.

The comedian Neal Brennan has a new bit about why elite athletes exhibit sub-elite mental health. When you exist on a plane of your own, your relationship with reality is a tenuous one. Michael Jordan’s five-alarm competitive fire was a central theme of The Last Dance. Brennan jokes about the mental make-up of gymnasts suspending themselves in midair while wearing a spangly swimsuit. (His words.) And don’t get him started on Tiger Woods.

The joke falls flat, though, when considering Simona Halep. Even as she rose to No. 1 and won a pair of majors—most notably destroying Serena Williams in the 2019 Wimbledon final—Halep was always so ferociously normal. All awareness and self-awareness, modest of stature and modest of self-regard, she scanned as, well, one of us.

Which made her 2022 doping ban all the more confusing. You operate at your peril when you speculate about which athletes do and don’t take PEDs. But, of all people, wasn’t Halep too rational to risk so much reputational damage—and suspension—for a couple extra wins?

Does she still take supplements? Yes, surprisingly. Does she relish returning to competition? Yes. Does she see herself winning multiple majors? Maybe not.

In the late summer of 2022, Simona Halep tested positive for Roxadustat, sometimes called “oxygen in a pill.” Adamantly, she maintained her innocence. Last month, Halep’s four-year ban was dramatically commuted after a successful appeal, a panel concluding the preponderance of evidence supported her belief a supplement was tainted and she had not intentionally doped.

Her penalty was slashed, drastically, to nine months. But because she had already been out of tennis for 15 months, she was immediately eligible to return.

Still, she’s enough of a realist to recognize the need for damage control, that her reputation was in need of some repair work. She realizes there will always be a sector who might associate her with a doping violation (all the more so in tennis, where players are strictly responsible for what goes into their body). But, she also knows that you don’t get your good name back by hiding.

So it was on an early spring Thursday, I flew to Bucharest to meet with Halep at a swanky tennis club built and owned by another member of Romanian tennis royalty, Ion Tiriac. I came to interview her about her ordeal. No preconditions were placed on the interview. She just wanted to give her side of the story, share her reality. And there’s an unmistakable sense she gets that she owes the Republic of Tennis an accountable explanation—one she is happy to provide.

She showed up in a SUV. She came with racquets. She did not come armed with notes, talking points, lawyerly statements or a handler. She spent an hour taking all questions and evading none.

Is she still angry at a system she believes fails her? Yes. Were there times she considered simply quitting? Yes. Is she enraged at her former coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, who recommended and obtained the supplements? No. Does she still take supplements? Yes, surprisingly. Does she relish returning to competition? Yes. Does she see herself winning multiple majors? Maybe not. Would she rather be talking about forehands and backhands and matches? Yes. But she knows the reality right now.

Simona Halep is 32 now. Her ranking is basically non-existent. (No. 1,144, to be precise.) Even though she stayed in physical shape during her absence, she lacks rhythm and match play. She knows—again, with the realism—that she will need to rely on the kindness of wild cards for this comeback to get going. But she’ll be out there. She’ll face her opponents. She’ll face her questions. She’ll confront her reality. She’ll move forward.

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