LONDON (Reuters) - When Simona Halep clambered up into the stands on Philippe Chatrier Court moments after finally winning her first Grand Slam title at the French Open, sporting great Nadia Comaneci was waiting to greet her with a big smile and outstretched arms.
While the hug shared between two of Romania’s most famous sporting icons was witnessed by a global audience of millions who rejoiced in Halep’s victory, Comaneci was among the minority who knew the feelings buzzing through the champion’s head.
After three previous Grand Slam final failures, Halep seemed more relieved than elated in her moment of triumph and covered her face with both hands as she tried to make sense of it all.
“It needs time to sink in. You have this euphoria of winning and you are thinking ‘I can’t believe this is for real’,” Comaneci, who sent the sporting world into a spin in 1976 when she became the first gymnast to score a perfect 10 at the Olympics, told Reuters.
“Then you are questioning yourself ‘is it really for real?’ Then you sleep on it and you wake up in the morning and you realize ‘Oh it wasn’t a dream, the trophy is here in my room. It really happened’,” she added with a laugh.
“In my case, even the next day I did not realize (the enormity of) what I had achieved. It was only when I arrived back in Romania and there were 10,000 people at the airport and I thought ‘oh it was a big deal then’.”
Halep’s return to her homeland last month was also a big deal. More than 20,000 people turned up to hail their new hero at Bucharest’s National Arena and Comaneci believes the Roland Garros triumph allowed Romanians from all corners to unite.
“Sport always brings people together so it was nice to see people of all ages in Romania had this moment of happiness,” Comaneci said by telephone before hosting a three-day camp with 140 children at the Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy in Oklahoma.
Halep’s win provided a welcome distraction in a country which has endured its fair share of political turmoil in 2018, with three politicians filling the prime minister’s role in the space of two weeks in January.
“... when a success like that (in Paris) happens, everybody forgets about everything and they can’t believe that one of ours has done that,” added Comaneci, who feared she might miss the final as her flight from the United States was delayed and she landed in Paris only two hours before the match.
A snapshot of Halep, footballer Gheorghe Hagi and Comaneci partying together during the post-match celebrations in Paris provided a reminder of the world class athletes Romania has produced over the past four decades.
But in the run-up to Halep’s triumph on June 9, it seemed as if Romanians would have to delve into the history books or dust off their old VHS tapes if they wanted to enjoy sporting glory.
The country failed to qualify for the last five soccer World Cups and while Comaneci and her fellow gymnasts won 25 Olympic golds from 1976 to 2012 - 2016 marked their nadir as Romania failed to win a single medal in the sport in the Rio Games.
The country’s whole Olympic team won just four medals in Rio - their lowest tally since 1952.
After so much doom and gloom, Comaneci hopes Halep’s win will act as a catalyst for a new generation of champions.
“It will be a boost for sport for the generation to come. It shows everybody that with hard work and dedication, you can be at the top,” said the 56-year-old.
“I am hoping that it will make parents understand the importance of playing sports and that Romania can be at the top again.”
Reporting by Pritha Sarkar, editing by Alison Williams