The tearful Romanian said she had fulfilled a dream courtesy of her defeat of Latvia’s Jelena Ostapenko 6-2, 6-4 and will play France’s on-form Caroline Garcia in Sunday’s China Open final.
In the men’s draw, world number one Rafael Nadal beat Grigor Dimitrov to set up a tasty final showdown with temperamental Australian Nick Kyrgios, who pulled off a stunning 6-3, 7-5 win over starlet Alexander Zverev.
Halep’s ousting of Spaniard Garbine Muguruza at the top of the women’s game will be officially confirmed on Monday when the latest rankings are released.
The 26-year-old will be the fifth woman to hold the top spot this year, but the first Romanian in the history of the WTA.
She smiled broadly, then cried and was presented with a flower arrangement in the figure “1” — which she hugged tightly — to celebrate the landmark moment.
“My dream is true now, in that moment you cannot believe 100 percent that it’s happening, so I was in tears a little bit,” she said.
“Maybe first time on court (to cry) nice tears… It’s the best moment in my life and I want just to keep it.
“Now tomorrow already I have just to restart everything, to start again to play the same and to work harder.
“And I have a few more dreams in my career.”
Asked by AFP what those were, she smiled: “I tell you one, only one: to win a Grand Slam, which you know.”
Halep saw off former number one Maria Sharapova earlier this week on Beijing’s outside hard courts and her defeat of Ostapenko had a whiff of revenge — the 20-year-old won their duel in the French Open final earlier this year, depriving Halep of a first Grand Slam.
Halep will though face a tough test in the final against Garcia, who is in the form of her life and chasing successive titles after winning the Wuhan Open last weekend.
The unseeded Garcia defeated Czech 12th seed Petra Kvitova, the two-time Wimbledon champion, 6-3, 7-5.
Halep’s ascension to the top brings Muguruza’s four-week reign as number one to an end, while the others who held the honour in 2017 are Angelique Kerber, Serena Williams and Karolina Pliskova.
The outstanding Williams is temporarily out of tennis after having her first child.
The tennis world united to congratulate the popular Halep, with Boris Becker tweeting: “Congrats to Simona Halep becoming new nr.1 in tennis! Long time coming…”
– Kyrgios the showman –
The Spaniard Nadal, 31, was taken to three sets by third seed Dimitrov before running away with the decider, winning their last-four clash 6-3, 4-6, 6-1.
Nadal is chasing a sixth title this season but to do so he must beat the enigmatic Kyrgios, who is becoming a crowd favourite in Beijing.
A year ago the 22-year-old was suspended by tennis authorities for his behaviour in a defeat in Shanghai during which he appeared to give up and argued with the crowd.
Kyrgios says he wants to show how far he has come and the 19th-ranked Australian did just that as he bustled past Zverev, the world number four from Germany, in an entertaining and high-quality semi-final.
Kyrgios’s exuberance won favour with the crowd in the Chinese capital and after winning one thrilling rally he turned to the spectators and gestured with flailing arms for them to keep roaring him on.
In contrast, Zverev smashed his racquet on the floor, earning a warning from the umpire, when Kyrgios grabbed the decisive break in the second set.