It was around this time last year that Simona Halep said she was “filled with sadness” after having to withdraw from the French Open due to a calf injury. It was a setback that pushed Halep close to retirement – “I thought at 30 I would be done” – and left her doubting that she would rediscover her best form.
But 12 months down the line, the mood has shifted significantly; there’s excitement and optimism around Halep rather than sadness.
The two-time Grand Slam champion has said she has got the “fire” back after teaming up with Serena Williams’ former coach Patrick Mouratoglou. As seeds have tumbled in the Madrid Open, Halep has shone, beating world No. 2 Paula Badosa and world No. 16 Coco Gauff in straight sets. Her impressive performances have elevated her to one of the favourites for the title ahead of a quarter-final clash with world No. 10 Ons Jabeur, the highest-ranked player left in the draw.
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"I was in doubts when I arrived there,” said Halep, who is playing for the first time since suffering a leg injury at Indian Wells in late March.
“I didn't know how much I can play and how good I can play still. But now I'm a different person. I feel more confident. I feel that the pleasure helps me to work harder, to work more. I spend more time on the court.
"I think it's everything coming from inside, and at this point I feel happy with myself. I feel that I have the chance to play good tennis again. Actually, it's my No. 1 priority in this moment, and I feel again that fire. I think it helps me to wake up in the morning and to go to give everything I have."
Asked whether her dazzling second-round performance against Badosa was “vintage Simona or Simona 2.0”, she replied: “New Simona, I would say".
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Halep is clearly at home in Madrid. Her win over Gauff was her 30th at the tournament; only at the Australian Open and French Open (31) has she won more main-draw matches. She is a two-time champion in the Spanish capital and will be looking to win her second title of the year after her victory in the Melbourne Summer Set ahead of the Australian Open.
Halep holds a 2-1 record against Jabeur and won their previous meeting in Dubai earlier this season. However, this will be the first time they have faced off on clay.
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"It's going to be a totally different match,” said Halep. “In Dubai, it was pretty tough because everybody [in the crowd] was with her. But sometimes I get the energy also from the crowd, like here with Paula Badosa, so I don't struggle with that. I love the energy on court and I love the atmosphere. It's good to have people than not to have people, so it will be good.
"She's different. She's a great person, first of all, because we get so well together. It's always nice to talk to her. But every time on court is a big fight, big battle. I'm expecting a big one next round.
"But I'm here just to give my best, as I said every day. I feel good on court, I feel my game. I'm just looking forward to play it and to fight for it."
With world No. 1 Iga Swiatek not in the Madrid draw as she recovers from injury, Halep’s displays are lifting her stock ahead of the French Open. If she stays fit, the 2018 champion could be a strong contender in Paris, especially with the experience of Mouratoglou in her corner. This is the first time Mouratoglou has worked exclusively as a coach for a player on tour since working with Williams for the last 10 years.
“I just want to take everything I have now, and his ideas and the way he sees my game, I like it,” said Halep.
“I started to believe more and more that I'm able to do it. So I will give my best. I trust him 100 percent. So we will see how good I can do, how good I can do these things that he's [told] me.”
Jabeur is the only top-10 player to have reached the Madrid quarter-finals. Aryna Sabalenka and Karolina Pliskova both lost in the first round while Badosa, Maria Sakkari, Danielle Collins and Garbine Muguruza were beaten in the second round. Halep, who is partly responsible for the now wide-open draw, says she is “not surprised” by the amount of upsets.
“I would have said that WTA tennis is very open, and anyone can win any tournament. So I’m not very surprised. I know that everyone is working hard and everyone has a chance.’
“I don’t look at the rankings that much, but it’s pretty amazing that only Ons is top 10 at this tournament. It’s a big tournament.”
Emma Raducanu is the next highest-ranked player remaining behind Jabeur. She faces Ukrainian Anhelina Kalinina in the last 16 on Tuesday evening.
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