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Exclusive: Comaneci hails history-maker Halep's Wimbledon triumph

LONDON (Reuters) - Nadia Comaneci predicted “no one in Romania will be working for a few days” as they would be too busy celebrating Simona Halep’s “amazing” victory over Serena Williams in Saturday’s Wimbledon final.

FILE PHOTO: Tennis - French Open - Roland Garros, Paris, France - June 9, 2018 Former gymnast Nadia Comaneci in the stands watching the final between Romania's Simona Halep and Sloane Stephens of the U.S. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Thirteen months ago, Comaneci was the first person Halep hugged when she clambered up into the stands on Court Philippe Chatrier after she won her first Grand Slam title at the French Open.

A scheduling conflict meant Comaneci could not fly in from her home in Oklahoma for Saturday’s Wimbledon finale so she resorted to an early wake-up call to follow the action on television.

Halep made sure it was not a wasted cause.

The former world number one produced what she called the “best tennis of my life” to become Romania’s first Wimbledon singles champion.

“That was an amazing performance. It’s fantastic. It’s not a surprise she won because mentally she was ready for this win and it’s now time for all of Romania to celebrate,” Comaneci told Reuters in a telephone interview moments after a beaming Halep walked off Center Court clutching the Venus Rosewater Dish.

“There will be no one working in Romania for a few days because people will be celebrating Simona’s great victory.”

While Comaneci had total faith that her friend would triumph on Saturday, others were not so sure considering Halep had won only one of her previous 10 meetings against Williams -- and that almost five years ago.

But with the words of her mother ringing in her ears -- when a 10-year-old Halep was told that if she wanted to do something in tennis she would need to play in a Wimbledon final -- the 27-year-old took only 56 spellbinding minutes to fulfil her own ambition of securing a lifetime membership at the All England Club.

So is the 6-2 6-2 Wimbledon triumph a bigger deal to Romanians than the Roland Garros win?

“Roland Garros was the ice breaker and this win is now making history,” Comaneci said with a laugh.

July is a month that will forever bind Romania’s two most famous sportswomen because it was in July 1976 that Comaneci became the first gymnast to score a perfect 10 at the Olympics.

Forty-three years later, on another glorious summer’s day, Halep could not stop smiling as she kept caressing the purple All England Club membership badge that had been pinned on to her gray hooded top.

“It’s woman power,” said the 57-year-old Comaneci. “July 18 1976 was when I got my perfect 10. So July is a beautiful month in the history of Romanian sports.

“Forty-three years ago we had our last Wimbledon finalist (Ilie Nastase) and today Simona went one step further. She is making history as she is the only Romanian woman who has two grand slam titles.”

When Halep returned to her homeland following her French Open triumph, more than 20,000 people turned up to hail their new hero at Bucharest’s National Arena and Comaneci believes the Wimbledon triumph will once again allow Romanians from all corners to unite.

“When I came back from Montreal in 1976, there were 10,000 people who had turned up to greet me and I didn’t know what hit me,” recalled Comaneci about the welcome she received as a 14-year-old.

“But Simona is showing the young generation that if you put your mind to it and work hard, you can be the best not only in Romania but in the world.”

Reporting by Pritha Sarkar, editing by Clare Fallon