A year on from losing a one-sided Australian Open quarterfinal to Dominika Cibulkova, Simona Halep is now ready to go all the way Down Under.
WTA Staff

MELBOURNE, Australia - On Tuesday, Simona Halep will bid to reach her first Australian Open semifinal and, unlike last year, she is now emotionally ready to deal with what is at stake.

Having had her appetite whetted and confidence raised by last year's breakthrough success, former Grand Slam champion Virginia Ruzici believes Halep is ready to elevate her game to an even higher plane. "She's a totally different player now, she's playing at another level," Ruzici said.

Ruzici has managed Halep since 2008 and perhaps knows her charge's game as well as anyone else in the tennis community.

The 2015 version of Halep is a much improved player compared to the one that reached the quarterfinals in Melbourne 12 months ago, at the time her best Grand Slam performance.

Ahead of Halep's quarterfinal with Ekaterina Makarova, Ruzici explains how much she has changed in one year: "Being No.2 in the world last year and finishing No.3 has given her a new confidence and let her enter a new dimension. She worked really well this winter, too. She really improved her serve and now goes for her shots even more on the return. She really tries to be a more aggressive player."

What a difference a year makes. Yet to make her Top 10 debut at this stage last year, Halep had never played on the Rod Laver Arena and was overcome by the emotions during her quarterfinal against Dominika Cibulkova, going on to lose, 6-3, 6-0.

"At this time she had never played on this center court [Rod Laver Aerna]," recalls Ruzici. "Now she's not as much overwhelmed by these matches anymore because she played on the big stages a lot last season."

As she prepares to face Makarova, Halep seems in a better place mentally. The past 12 months have brought her an inner peace and belief. "I have a lot of confidence now," Halep says. "I haven't lost a set yet. I'm really happy that I'm in the second week here like last year. I started to play my best tennis here in Grand Slams so it means a lot to me. I really have more confidence now to play the quarterfinals."

Halep's coach, Victor Ionita, who she began working with this off-season, was satisfied with her performance thus far and is ready for a tough battle against Makarova, "She can play much better than this but it has been good so far. Simona, when she steps up and stays close to the line and takes the ball early, is a very dangerous player. The pressure is for every player, not only her so I think she can handle the situation pretty well. Makarova is a very strong player. It will be a very interesting match."

The 23-year-old is ready for the fight, too: "She serves pretty well. She's moving well. And she's pretty aggressive. But I believe in my chance."

Another improvement in the Romanian's on-court make-up has been her ability to deal with frustration. "I have to accept my mistakes because it's normal to make some. I just want to be perfect on court but it's not possible, perfection doesn't exist. So I try to keep my mind very focused on every point and to forget about my mistakes," Halep added.

As she enters the business end of the tournament, Halep has to hope that all the experience gained in 2014 is going to push her to the next step: lifting a maiden Grand Slam trophy.

A finalist at Roland Garros, a semifinalist at Wimbledon and a runner-up at the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global, she has consistently performed at the biggest events. Is a Grand Sam win within her reach? Will it be in Melbourne 2015?

Ruzici is confident it could happen here or anywhere else and, more importantly, she feels that Halep is now also convinced. "Yes I think she really starts to believe it. Roland Garros and Singapore really helped her, especially also beating Serena Williams in the group stages. She's more mature now too, so I think she's ready. Simona was maybe a bit shy in the past but now she feels way better in her own skin and is much more confident. She's someone with a really strong temper you know. There are no limits for her."

Ionita agrees wholeheartedly and is confident she can dream as big as any other top player, "I believe she can be No.1 in the world. But first, she has to believe it more than everybody else."

Like last year, Halep is now three wins away from the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup. But this time she's thrilled about the battle ahead, confident she belongs and worthy of all the success that is around the corner. That could change everything.

Freelance French reporter Carole Bouchard covers all things tennis around the world.