THE plane rolled to a halt.
Simona Halep looked out of the window and saw a red carpet, and 300 people cheering. There were 290 fewer in attendance yesterday as she made her debut in the main media room at Wimbledon.
But the 22-year-old Romanian knows everything has changed. She looked around the empty expanse of the room and declared: "I hope to be here many times at this tournament."
Loading article content
Halep has won two matches at Wimbledon to date, but comes into this year's tournament as a viable contender after an impressive run at the French Open where she was beaten in the final by Maria Sharapova. She also has a pedigree on grass, winning the 's-Hertoenbosch Open in the Netherlands last year.
Halep only broke into the top 50 in the world two years ago so her ascent to third - she is also seeded No 3 at Wimbledon behind Serena Williams and her conqueror last year, Li Na - has been such it might draw admiring glances from Nasa.
The defeat in Paris not only showcased her aggressive baseline style, but also caused her to come into the grass-court season with a belief she can play well into the second week. The shoulder injury that caused her to withdraw from s-Hertogenbosch this year has healed. Halep has come to London healthy, inspired and with a plan.
The defeat to Sharapova has become an entry ticket to a new life rather than a devastating setback. She said of her arrival back in Romania after her sensational fortnight at Roland Garros: "It was an amazing feeling when I arrived home because they stopped the plane just on the red carpet at the airport and everybody was waiting for me, about 300 fans.
"I went to them and I said hello. It was incredible. For me it was the best moment of my life. I will never forget that moment."
Halep's relative anonymity has been blown away and she knows Wimbledon will make demands of her off court. "The big change is that everybody knows me now and a lot of people are speaking about me and are watching me," she said.
"In Romania all the press, every day they are watching me. It's a little bit difficult, but I want to stay away from this and keep my mental focus on tennis. I just want to think about tennis now and nothing else."
It is an approach that has served Halep well. Last year she came into Wimbledon unseeded and exited in the second round. This year she expects more of herself.
She admitted reaching the final of the French Open came as a surprise, but substantial progress at Wimbledon would not shock her. "I feel good and believe I will play well here," she said, explaining she has a strategy for moving opponents around the court and creating angles she can exploit.
Her slight figure, accentuated by breast reduction operations, is not suited to matching the power of such as Serena or Sharapova on grass but Halep is technically adept and a fine mover on court.
She is also sure of her right to be with the best. She talked of "celebrating" a runner-up finish at Roland Garros, but this was not the action of someone who feels finishing second is worthy of a champagne reception. Rather it was an acknowledgement of how far she has come in a short space of time and how her lifetime goals are suddenly and dramatically in sight.
Halep, who opens her Wimbledon campaign against Teliana Pereira of Brazil, retains a slight sense of disbelief at her No 3 ranking.
"It is a nice number," she said. "A few years ago I was looking at the rankings on the internet and I saw I was on the fourth page. I said then my dream was to be on first page. Now I am there and I am really happy. I cannot be sad that I lose some matches. I want to enjoy the moment and to try to improve more in my game so I can maybe be second or first."
If that happens, or glory at Wimbledon suddenly arrives, the airport tarmac in Bucharest should brace itself for a mass invasion.