Halep making headway, bit by bit

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Simona Halep cut a remarkably sprightly, sunny figure in her press conference on Monday night following her fourth-round Australian Open 2019 loss to Serena Williams.

The world No.1 fell short of defending the ranking points she earned from reaching last year’s final, and could well lose her No.1 ranking next week in what is shaping as a tight race to the top spot between Naomi Osaka, Elina Svitolina, Karolina Pliskova and Petra Kvitova. 

MORE: Serena digs in to see off Halep

Perhaps it was because Halep made a hell of a match out of a contest that was looking disastrously one-sided after a 20-minute first-set blowout. 

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21 Jan 19
Simona Halep press conference

Simona Halep press conference

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“I felt like I had been hit by the train in the first set,” she laughed after the 1-6 6-4 4-6 defeat. “Everything was too fast.” 

Yet the world No.1 adjusted, and preceded to push the 23-time Grand Slam champion across the next two compelling sets before going down in almost two hours. 

The loss left her with a lamentable 1-9 head-to-head record against the great American, but Halep felt she was getting closer to unseating Williams. 

“I feel like she plays really great against me always,” Halep said. 

“Losing every time is not improving, but I felt like I was closer. I played better. I stayed in the rallies better. I won the long rallies. I felt like I had more power playing against her. I moved well. I feel like being close to her, it's a good level. 

“Always she plays well, because it's Serena Williams.” 

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Halep willed herself back into the match, but just fell short

Speaking of playing well, that was something Halep had struggled to do leading into the year’s first Grand Slam. 

In fact, playing at all was a struggle. 

Following last year’s US Open, a herniated disc in Halep’s back threw her Asian swing into disarray, affecting her in Wuhan, forcing her to retire injured in Beijing, and seeing her skip the WTA Finals in Singapore. 

In her first match back in Sydney two weeks ago, she was beaten in straight sets by Ash Barty, thus arriving at Melbourne Park with just one complete match under her belt since September. 

There was also the disruption of parting ways with long-time coach Darren Cahill, who wished to spend more time with his family in 2019. 

Interestingly, Halep was spotted working with Thierry Van Cleemput before her match against Serena, and the Belgian was in the stands for her match despite having split with David Goffin just one day earlier. 

“We are talking, but is not my coach officially, so we will see,” she said. 

“I have nothing to do with their split. I like him as a coach. I like him as a person. We didn't decide yet anything. We just have to know each other better.” 

I haven't been prepared for the highest level in tennis, but I did not play bad … I take only the positives
Simona Halep

Handed a dreadful first-round draw at the Australian Open in the form of the eternally-dangerous Kaia Kanepi – who beat her in the first round in New York – Halep managed to get past that, before surviving Hobart champion Sofia Kenin, and then outplaying seven-time major champion Venus Williams to get to the last 16. 

Regardless of the Serena result, it was a tournament performance of which she could be proud. 

“Close to 10,” she said, giving herself a rating.   

“I have the courage to say that, because I took the risk to stay home so much (in the off-season), and I haven't been prepared for the highest level in tennis, but I did not play bad. So I'm happy about the way that it's been going this tournament, and I take only the positives. 

“I had great matches. I had the toughest draw, but it was nice.”