Same, but different for Halep

  • Michael Beattie

It’s different this time, admits Simona Halep. 

One year on from her run to the Australian Open 2018 final – a seven-match odyssey laced with plot twists, ankle turns, marathon encounters and an epic title showdown with Caroline Wozniacki – Halep returns to Melbourne Park with something she did not have 12 months ago: a Grand Slam title to her name.

MORE: Women’s draw – Halep’s familiar foe

“It's a big difference,” said the reigning Roland Garros champion. “I can say inside myself, because I did what I wanted to do. I won a Grand Slam finally. Now I can say I'm a real No.1 – before I said without a Grand Slam, you are not a real No.1.”

The changes don’t end there, however. The world No.1, installed as top seed at Melbourne Park for a second successive year, returns without a coach following the departure of Darren Cahill after the Australian announced he was taking a year-long hiatus at the end of the 2018 season.

Halep confirmed that she will play this year’s Australian Open without a coach in her box, but the search for Cahill’s replacement could soon be underway.   

“For me it's a little bit tough to change the person I'm working (with) every day because I get attached to the people, to my team,” said the 27-year-old.

“Every time you commit to someone in your team, you have to give 100 per cent, so I was not ready in the off-season. Now I'm feeling that I'm getting better. As I say always, at this level it is impossible without a coach, so maybe in the close future I will have someone. But for the moment, I'm just by myself.”

Simona Halep will play without a coach after Darren Cahill stepped aside

Coaching vacancies aside, Halep’s Australian Open preparations have also been markedly different to 2018. Back then she arrived at Melbourne Park fresh from winning the title in Shenzhen; this year, her only match play prior to the first major of the season was a 6-4 6-4 loss to Ash Barty in Sydney. And concern about the back injury that prevented her from playing in October’s WTA Finals still lingers.

“I was 100 per cent in the last match,” Halep confirmed. “I feel okay. I feel healthy. But you never know with the back, so we will see.”

I won a Grand Slam finally. Now I can say I'm a real No.1 – before I said without a Grand Slam, you are not a real No.1
Simona Halep on the differences between last year and 2019

The one constant from 2018 is the one that drew a wry smile from the Romanian during her press conference: her first-round opponent, Kaia Kanepi. The duo also met in the first round at the previous Grand Slam, last year’s US Open, where Kanepi stunned Halep – and Louis Armstrong Stadium – with a 6-2 6-4 win.

Should she survive her opener, things don’t get much easier for Halep from there. Both Venus and Serena Williams are potential opponents before the quarterfinals – Venus in the third round, Serena in the fourth.

“You really want to know?” Halep joked when asked her reaction to the draw. “Darren actually sent me [a message] because he did the draw. I was at Nike taking my new shoes. When I saw the message, I was like, ‘Okay, whatever. I’ll just enjoy the moment with the shoes, then I'll think about the match’ – that's it.”

The Kanepi defeat was a tough loss but another learning experience for Halep, who also took the time to reflect on last year’s Melbourne final defeat by Wozniacki, hard as it was to look back.

“I didn't want to think that much about that match because was really painful to lose it,” Halep said of the 2018 final. “But I learned some things from that match. That break [at 4-3 in the third set] broke me a little bit, that moment. Now I know how to manage better if that happens again.”