This time last year, Simona Halep was on the brink of retirement.
The former women’s world No. 1 had announced her withdrawal from the 2021 edition of French Open due to a calf injury. Later that season, she also deferred from Wimbledon, and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
“I felt exhausted and I felt that there is no chance I can be in the top anymore,” Halep told CNN Sport’s Christina Macfarlane in an exclusive interview with her new coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. “It was really tough to look on the bright side.”
Having dropped outside the coveted top 10 world rankings for the first time since January 2014, Halep was falling out of love with tennis.
However, since she started working with Mouratoglou earlier this year Halep says her passion for the sport has been reignited.
“I didn’t really expect that because I’m not very open to people and it’s not easy for me to trust in somebody. But it was just a great connection since the first moment I met him,” Halep says of Mouratoglou.
“I was almost done before coming here because I didn’t have that fire anymore and I didn’t trust that I’m able to play at the highest level again. So coming here I found it and I discovered again why I play tennis,” she adds. “I play tennis because I love it … He brought that fire back.”
In April, Mouratoglou announced on social media that he would start coaching Halep full-time, after she visited his prestigious training academy in France ahead of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California.
“I always love to watch her play. I think she has an incredible game, so she’s super exciting as a player,” Mouratoglou tells CNN Sport. “She was playing great already, but she could play much more. I could see the progress she could make.”
Known by his moniker, “The Coach,” Mouratoglou is one of the most sought-after instructors in tennis.
He started coaching in 2005, working with Marcos Baghdatis on the junior circuit and helping him get to world No. 1 at youth level, according to his official website.
A year later Baghdatis got to the Australian Open final before losing to Roger Federer and also reached the Wimbledon semifinal that same season.
Since then, Mouratoglou has helped an array of promising young players elevate their game, including Grigor Dimitrov, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and most notably 23-time grand slam champion Serena Williams, the website adds.
The secret to his success? “Of course the passion is the most important. (If) the players don’t have the passion, they’re not going to achieve anything great,” said Mouratolgou. “So that’s the key.”
“People also in their life go through moments in which they kind of maybe lose their love for the game for a period of time or have less love for the game,” he adds. “I don’t think she (Halep) lost it.”
What makes a champion
Even though Romania’s Halep has 23 singles titles under her belt – including two grand slam wins – she had to adapt to an especially rigorous form of drilling at the Mouratoglou Academy.
She spent two weeks starting a new training schedule at 8:30 a.m., something she told reporters she “never did in my life,” the WTA reported.
“I did it with pleasure and I did it easy. So that made me think that I still love it and I still can do it. So if I’m healthy, I think I can have a good game,” she added, according to the WTA website.
Alongside her physical rehabilitation, Halep has worked with Mouratoglou on rebuilding her confidence.
“He’s super open, so it’s super easy to talk to him,” she tells CNN. “I’m very emotional. I have many fears in general and I doubt myself most of the tim. And it was easy for me to actually express myself the way I am.”
When Mouratoglou appeared in the Netflix series, “The Playbook,” in September 2020, he spoke about how a player’s mental strength can make or break their ability to become a champion.
The series follows world-renowned sports coaches as they share their personal rules for success both inside and outside the arena.
“Everyone has limits, and the limits of everyone are not technical, tactical, physical. They’re mental,” Mouratoglou told the documentary.
“And when you don’t think like a champion, you don’t act like a champion and don’t win like a champion. So it’s very important to make sure the mind works right.”
Mouratoglou tells CNN that he has a similar approach to rebuilding a player’s psychological resilience as legendary football manager José Mourinho, who also appeared in the Netflix series.
“He said something like, ‘Soccer starts with the foot, continues with the heart and finishes with the head.’”
“The head is the most important … because if you don’t deeply believe that you can achieve something, you’re not going to go full. You’re going to go halfway. You’re going to find reasons not to do things. You’re going to find excuses,” Mouratoglou says.
“I think a big part of my job to help people, in this case Simona, believe in themselves and their ability to achieve what they want to,” he adds. “I always tell Simona how strong she is mentally because I really believe it.
“She made my job super easy, in a way, by being so open and trusting me so much.”
Partnership with Serena Williams
Mouratoglou is no stranger to reinventing players who have hit rock bottom.
In 2012 he approached a turning point in his career, when he started coaching Williams, who had just suffered an unprecedented defeat at Roland Garros to France’s Virginie Razzano. It was the first time in Williams’ career that she had lost in the first round of a major competition.
She was also in search of a grand slam victory, having gone for two years without winning a major.
Mouratoglou and Williams were dubbed the “Dynamic Duo” on tour and ended up tallying 10 grand slam victories together, as well as a women’s singles title at the London 2012 Olympics.
“I’m super proud with what we’ve done with Serena. Now, of course, I’m super thankful for those 10 years that were incredible,” Mouratoglou says. “She’s trusted me for 10 years, which is something that you don’t see very often in the tennis world.”
Williams has not played since she retired from her first-round Wimbledon match against Aliaksandra Sasnovich in June 2021, during which she sustained a leg injury.
“It’s not easy to tell someone you worked with for 10 years that you’re going to start something with someone else,” Mouratoglou adds. “It’s a 10-year relationship … where you share so many things and so many emotion and so many moments.”
‘I’m ready to give my best’
When Mouratoglou and Halep speak to CNN they’re prepping for Roland Garros, where the 30-year-old Romanian is scheduled to play against Croatia’s Ana Konjuh in the first round on Sunday.
Halep has fond memories of the French Open, having won her maiden grand slam title in Paris after beating Sloane Stephens in 2018.
“The French Open is my favorite grand slam,” she says. “I love the city. I feel great. I like the vibe. So everything gets together and I just feel great. It’s going to be a big challenge, this tournament, for me. I’m ready mentally. I’m ready to give my best.”
“I really thought I would be done by 30,” Halep says. “I was wrong.”
“I want to play few more years. I feel like I can,” she adds. “My body is okay. You know, I feel healthy. I feel that my energy level is high. So I don’t see any reason to stop now.”
However, there’s one player who could stand in the way of a third grand slam tittle for Halep.
Poland’s Iga Swiatek has had a meteoric rise to become world No. 1 over the past year.
In April, she clinched her fourth straight title of the 2022 season at the Stuttgart Open final, pushing her winning streak to 23 matches.
At just 20 years old, Swiatek has shown no sign of wavering. If she wins the French Open, she’ll equal Venus Williams’ record this millennium of 35 successive victories.
“For the last month, Iga has shown a lot of stability physically, mentally and tennis wise. She’s super solid in everything. That’s why she’s been winning so much. But I think everybody is beatable,” Mouratoglou says.
And Mouratoglou is confident that Halep’s mental fortitude could rival Swiatek.
“She’s also a great player, but what makes her special is the fact that she’s extremely strong mentally,” he says. “I feel that also she believes in herself and the combination can do wonders.”