“First up, from Romania, make some noise for Simona Halep,” on-court emcee Blair Henley urged the Miami Open crowd on Tuesday.

Halep walked into the Grandstand eagerly, with a smile and a wave. Her hair was longer, but otherwise the 32-year-old looked the same as she had when we last saw her, at the 2022 US Open. The many fans in Romanian blue, yellow, and red—including one in a T-shirt with “Halepeño” written across the country’s flag—welcomed her back with their traditional chants of “See-moan-ah.”.

More surprisingly, Halep also played the way we remembered, at least for a set and a half. She began by breaking her opponent, Paula Badosa, with two frozen-rope backhand winners, and showed the same potent blend of running and ball-striking that had taken her to No. 1 in the world.

But after going up 6-1, 1-0, the reality of her situation, and the quality of her opponent, began to make themselves clear. The taller and stronger Badosa started to pick on Halep’s second serve; Halep started to feel some pain in her right shoulder; and Badosa controlled enough of the action to win the last two sets 6-4, 6-3. All of which gave Halep a chance to remind us of her temperamental side. She slammed a ball into the court after losing a point early in the third set, and draped a towel over her head on changeovers as she fell behind.

Halep was playing her first match since an opening-round loss at the 2022 US Open.

Halep was playing her first match since an opening-round loss at the 2022 US Open.


Still, it was a start.

“It felt really good,” Halep said. “I had emotions, but positive emotions. To see the crowd supporting me so nice gave me a lot of energy. The level of tennis was pretty good. Unexpected, I think, for most of the people.

“I would say this day is going to stay very special for me.”

It’s likely a day that, at different points over the last 18 months, she thought would never come. Halep was suspended for four years by tennis’s anti-doping authorities, after testing positive for Roxadustat at the 2022 Open, and for having irregularities in her Athlete Biological Passport (ABP), a baseline that is created through a series of blood tests. Halep said that hearing “four years” had been the hardest moment of all for her.

“You get four years for something you didn’t do, it’s pretty tough to handle,” she said. “So that decision was breaking me a little.”


Halep maintains that she took a contaminated collagen supplement, Keto MCT. Her coach at the time, Patrick Mouratoglou, says he “feels responsible” for recommending it. How that led first to a four-year ban, and then to a nine-month ban, and took a year and a half to settle, is the latest example of the fog of the anti-doping process. Two different panels, looking at the same evidence, came to two very different conclusions.

The International Tennis Integrity Agency (ITIA), which handed down the four-year ban, noted that Halep didn’t mention the Keto MCT on her Doping Control Form when she was tested at the Open, or when they interviewed her the following month. “That was distinctly careless of her.”

The ITIA speculated that Halep may have been micro-dosing Roxadustat through much of the 2022 season, with the goal of making her blood “highly oxygenated” for Wimbledon and the Open. The Keto MCT, according to the panel, couldn’t have accounted for the amount of the substance found in her system; she would have needed to take “between 900 to 5,000 times” the recommended dose, the report stated. The ITIA believed she was guilty of “repetitive and sophisticated” doping, and suggested extending her suspension to six years.

You get four years for something you didn’t do, it’s pretty tough to handle. So that decision was breaking me a little.


Halep appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which found something entirely different. That panel wrote, “on the balance of probabilities,” the banned substance came from the contaminated supplement. They also discounted the irregularities found in her blood tests, citing a private test that Halep took for nasal surgery in the fall of 2022. The CAS reduced her sentence from four years all the way down to nine months, an amount she had already served.

Which organization got it right? Do the dueling verdicts reveal flaws in tennis anti-doping system, or the inevitable murk that comes with this territory, or both? Tennis fans are left to guess, and decide for themselves. The easiest reaction might be to say that, either way, Halep has been punished, and that, when suspensions can last for as long as four or even six years—basically killing careers—it’s good that players have a chance to appeal. Hopefully, we’ll know more when the CAS releases its full report.

“I trusted 100 percent from the first day until the last day that the truth will come out and the decision will be taken in a fair way,” Halep said. “I know I’m clean, I knew I didn’t do anything wrong. I believe it’s impossible to stay four years for something that doesn’t exist.”

Vindicated or not, Halep is back, with a second career ahead of her at 32. You have to think she’ll make the most of it.