Interview

Halep: My keepy-uppie record is 89

Simona Halep
© Ben Solomon / Cincy Tennis
  • Simona Halep, the WTA No1, speaks to FIFA.com during the Australian Open
  • She discusses her ball-juggling ability and Gheorghe Hagi
  • Halep reveals her admiration for Messi and Ronaldo

Big-white-ball mania sweeps the circuit of fluorescent-yellow, fibrous-felt-covered mini-balls. Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal, the nephew of former Spain bruiser Miguel Angel Nadal, and Roger Federer – the three men atop of the ATP World Rankings – are among its avid football followers. So, too, is the counter-punching baseliner topping the WTA Rankings.

Simona Halep became the first player since Steffi Graf in 1986 to win her first six WTA titles in the same year in 2013, and the reigning French Open champion has just begun her second successive calendar year as the world No1, ahead of another two fans of ‘The Beautiful Game’ in Angelique Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki. And as supporters have discovered, chuck the Romanian a football – size 2, size 3, size 5, it doesn’t matter – and you’re not getting it back until she’s had some fun!

“I love football,” Halep told FIFA.com during time out from the Australian Open, in which she lost a three-set thriller to Wozniacki in the 2018 final. “My father didn’t quite have a professional career, but he loved football and everybody tells me how talented he was. I played a lot of football when I was a kid, on the street with my cousins and my brother.

“I think I’m lucky that the keepy-uppie ability comes naturally. I like to play all sports and maybe I have a bit of talent and coordination for it. I did nothing special to learn. Just like any sport, I played it a lot! I think my record is around 89.”

Halep was born in 1991, began playing tennis when she was four years old, and taking the sport seriously when she was only six. Her idol growing up was not, however, Graf, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis or one of the other governesses of women’s tennis in the 1990s.

“Gheorghe Hagi was my hero,” said the 27-year-old, who was last month ranked ninth on ESPN’s list of the 20 most dominant athletes on the planet, above Lewis Hamilton (12th) and Lebron James (13th). “I was overjoyed to meet him when I was a kid. And when I discovered he knew who I was, I couldn’t believe it.

“I met him at a Steaua game in the Champions League. He was really nice. He gave me some great advice.”

‘The Maradona of the Carpathians’ was, of course, the swashbuckling poster boy of Romania’s greatest-ever side, which also comprised the likes of Bogdan Stelea, Dan Petrescu, Gica Popescu, Ioan Lupescu, Ilie Dumitrescu, Florin Raducioiu and Marius Lacatus and reached the knockout phase at all three FIFA World Cups™ in the 1990s, unforgettably beating an Argentina side decorated by Diego Simeone, Fernando Redondo, Ariel Ortega and Gabriel Batistuta 3-2 to reach the USA 1994 quarter-finals.

“I’m too young to be able to talk about those moments, even if I have watched on the internet, but people are still always talking about them,” said Halep. “I hear many stories about how great they were and I admire every single footballer from that generation. Big names, big personalities, great people.

“And I can say I have the honour to know a few of them personally. I’m good friends with Bogdan, and I like listening to him talking about his experiences as a professional athlete. He is a great person.”

Halep’s Cristiano Ronaldo-esque dedication to her profession, charitable work and devotion to spending time with her family, including her beloved two-year-old niece Tania, mean she doesn’t have as much time as she’d like to watch football.

“I hear about football all the time from my father and brother Nicolae, who are following it non-stop, and sometimes I get to watch matches,” Halep explained. “I admire every athlete and I’m 100 per cent behind our national team. I’m a proud Romanian and love supporting our country whenever I can.”

Halep continues her push to win the Australian Open, and consolidate her status as the world’s No1 women’s tennis player, against the fast-rising American Sofia Kenin, 20, on Thursday. But who does she consider football’s No1 player?

“We know that many people are talking about Messi and Ronaldo being the best, and I want to say that I admire both of them,” she said. “They are different, but both very special athletes.”

Those two special athletes may be able to eclipse 89 keepy-uppies, but could you?

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