When Simona Halep won the French Open last week, it was almost inevitable that someone would bring up Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian gymnast who scored seven Perfect 10s at the Olympics in 1976. That feat turned Comaneci into an icon and inspired generations of gymnasts and led to decades of Romanian superiority in women’s gymnastics. In the New York Times, Ben Rothenberg made the connection explicit—his headline was “Can Simona Halep Do for Romanian Tennis What Nadia Comaneci Did for Gymnastics?”
Rothenberg spoke to Comaneci, who flew to Paris for the final, about Halep’s possible impact on the future of tennis in her home country. (Comaneci now lives in Oklahoma with her husband, the U.S. Olympic gold medal gymnast Bart Conner.) “I think it’s great,” Comaneci said. “It’s amazing for Romania, for sport in Romania, because you have always have a young generation who look up to someone and say, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’”
It’s likely that Halep’s Grand Slam win, the first for a Romanian woman since Virginia Ruzici won the French Open in 1978, will inspire more Romanians to take up tennis seriously, but this is a different story in large part because this is such a different world. The economic and political conditions that helped Romanian women turn Comaneci’s Olympic triumphs in 1976 into three decades of medal winning performances don’t really exist anymore. Comaneci’s Romania was totalitarian and communist, and she competed with the sort of full state support that comes with a program under total state control. To have a similar impact in her home country, Halep’s continued wins will have to be accompanied by structural changes that will give more Romanians an opportunity to participate in a sport that is associated with upper middle class prosperity. In one of the poorest countries in the European Union, the structural obstacles are everywhere.
“Romania doesn’t have a well-developed system in place to support them [the players]. They must have a financial stability to self-sustain their careers,” Andreea Giuclea, a sportswriter for Romanian magazine Decât o Revistă, told me in an email. “I’ve interviewed athletes who gave up tennis because it was too expensive and went onto to do other sports instead, and tennis players who struggled and had to get loans to keep going.” Giuclea has written several articles about Halep, including two longform pieces for Decât o Revistă; the first in 2014 and the second, with Ani Sandu, in 2017.
(Disclosure: I was an invited speaker at the Power of Storytelling, an annual conference that is run by the editors of Decât o Revistă, back in 2016. I had a much better time in Romania than Anthony Bourdain did.)
While Halep doesn’t come from a wealthy background, she certainly didn’t grow up poor. Halep’s father owns a dairy factory and her family was able to support her training and travel during the early years of her career. There are some resources available from Romania’s National Tennis Federation, Giuclea noted—the best in various age groups can train for free at the National Tennis Centre and get some coaching, for instance. But that facility is located in Bucharest, which means hopefuls would have to be fortunate enough to live nearby to take advantage of the opportunity.
For the most part, Romanian athletes have to train at private clubs. There are approximately 300 private tennis clubs in Romania, almost all of which would be unaffordable for most people in Romania, which has one of the highest poverty rates in Europe. About 25 percent of the population is considered “poor.”
And yet ... Halep did it. She progressed through the ranks, and received some financial assistance along the way. At 15, she was sponsored by Corneliu Idu, a Romanian businessman who opened a tennis school in Halep’s hometown of Constanta. (Halep is doing more than all right these days; she’s earned $26 million thus far.)
Despite the limited opportunities for economic support, Halep’s success even prior to her French Open win has already spurred participation in the sport. Giuclea noted a surge of interest after the 2013 season, when Halep won six WTA titles, and also in 2014 when she entered the top 10 and made her first Grand Slam final. “A coach from a local club outside Bucharest told me in 2014 he had noticed a 20–30 percent increase in the number of kids, especially among girls,” he told me. “The number of amateur players also increased, as well as of tennis courts.” This last bit—the increase in the number of courts—is most significant to Giuclea. Improving the sports infrastructure in the country would go a long way to improving competitive results. It would at least give kids who want to follow in Halep’s footsteps a chance to play the sport.
Halep may come to represent her country on the world stage in the way that Comaneci did for her Romania back in 1976, but she will be a very different sort of symbol for a very different sort of Romania. Comaneci became famous when she was just 14 years old. It was more than just being the first gymnast to score a Perfect 10 that turned her into a legend. That certainly helped, but what made her stand out was the seeming ease with which she performed, her ability to do the same routines over and over again without mistakes. That mastery was the result of a tremendous amount of hard training, commencing at a young age, but all that work was invisible in her performances. This masking of effort and hiding of trauma has been a big part of the story that gets told about women’s gymnastics of late, but it has always been there.
Even the most effortless and graceful tennis players can’t manage that type of performance; it’s just how that game works. Great players sometimes make difficult shots look easy, but it is by no means as imperative as it is in gymnastics. Tennis players can make a play look hard because it is hard; players win matches by winning points, not by convincing judges that they’ve nailed various technical elements.
And Halep’s trajectory has been quite unlike Comaneci’s. The gymnast’s path to the pinnacle of her sport was relatively smooth. She burst onto the senior scene at 13, winning the European title over defending Olympic champion Ludmilla Tourischeva, and then went right on to win Olympic gold—three of them, to be precise—at 14, scoring those seven Perfect 10s in the process. Comaneci became a legend over the span of about a year. Tennis careers don’t work like that.
Halep also enjoyed early success, starting with her string of wins in 2013 and entering the Top 10 in 2014, but hasn’t had the same uncomplicated rise to the top. Though she held the No. 1 ranking heading into Roland Garros, Halep entered this year’s French Open with an 0-3 record in the finals of Grand Slams. Her fellow Romanians never let her forget it. “When she lost, they were very critical, almost in an aggressive way,” Giuclea explained. “The main thing they pointed at was her choking under pressure, being too emotional, not having the ‘mentality of a champion.’ This is something that all Romanian athletes are criticized for when they lose, but her the most, as her defeats were so public.”
Halep’s repeated disappointments reinforced, for some, the narrative of Romania in its post-Communist years—as a country that is still struggling to find its footing. “When someone loses,” Giuclea said, “they say, ‘It’s typical of Romanians, because we’re not winners, we don’t have a winning mentality, we can’t achieve more.’ I’m not saying everyone is like this, but these are some of the harsher comments.”
Given the emotional stakes, it’s not surprising that Romanian fans took Halep’s losses badly. “Romanians tend to invest a lot in sports and to have huge expectations from athletes,” Giuclea told me. “Probably [the same] as any other small nation who struggles in so many ways that a sports victory brings joy, meaning and some feeling of pride that’s difficult to find somewhere else.”
But there is another side to that. even before Halep picked up her first Grand Slam. Comaneci gave Romania total dominance in 1976; perhaps that’s why Comaneci was such useful propaganda tool for dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s repressive Communist regime. Not that any of this was her choice—she was a kid and she lived in a dictatorship. But Comaneci did not and could not reflect back at Romania what Halep does—struggle, loss, vulnerability, and the defiant surmounting of towering odds.
At this very different juncture in Romanian political history, what Halep represents—and her ability to win despite it all—is just as powerful. Romania is poor and corrupt, but it’s a democracy. Over the last two years, Romanians have protested against their government several times in mass demonstrations, with 300,000 people taking to the streets at one point. The total population of the country is just under 20 million.
In modern Romania, Halep makes for a different sort of hero. Some 20,000 fans showed up at the National Arena in Bucharest to see Halep and her trophy; they only had love for Halep, but the crowd booed Bucharest mayor Gabriela Firea when she appeared onstage. The mayor claimed that the jeers were the result of “civic groups allied to Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros conspired to ‘compromise the event.’” It’s a desperate politician’s dodge, but it’s not just that. In 1976, Ceausescu could use Comaneci’s effortless brilliance as a symbol and a shield. In 2018, a politician on the same stage as Halep can’t escape the contrast between themselves and an athlete who represents what Romania’s future might be.