MADRID, Spain -- Simona Halep doesn't like early-morning training sessions. But the former No.1 found herself happily hitting the Mouratoglou Academy courts at dawn as she readied her return to her beloved clay.
"I've been in the academy and I saw all the kids there training and having the desire to become champions," Halep told a small pool of reporters at the Mutua Madrid Open after her first-round win. "They were working hard at 8:00 a.m., they were on the court. I told Patrick, that's pretty tough.
"And actually I did two weeks training at 8:30 a.m., which I never did in my life. But I did it with pleasure and I did it easy. So that made me think that I still love it and I still can do it. So if I'm healthy, I think I can have a good game."
It can be jarring to hear Halep, one of the toughest competitors in the women's game for the last decade, confess that she doubted her future in the sport. Last season, Halep saw her six-year streak inside the Top 10 end after an injury-plagued season. The 30-year-old sustained a calf injury last spring in Rome, which ruled her out of Roland Garros and her title defense at Wimbledon.
"The injury last year made me feel that with stopping for four months, I cannot get the rhythm back," Halep said. "I'm 30, so I thought always at 30 it will be tough. I had this in my mind, I don't know why. Losing some matches, getting injured again was not easy. Also in Australia, also in Indian Wells.
"So I was doubting myself that my body can still hold for the highest level in tennis. So yeah, probably I was super close to stopping. I didn't have that energy and that confidence that I can still be on tour and at the highest level."
Having ended her longtime partnership with Darren Cahill last fall, Halep made a surprise announcement by hiring Serena Williams' longtime coach Patrick Mouratoglou in April. Halep had already started training at the Mouratoglou Academy in February but was under the impression he was unavailable to coach her. At the Miami Open, Mouratoglou told her he was, in fact, available, and Halep didn't think twice, hiring him immediately.
"I feel like I can relate to him, and he has enough power to lead me and I needed a person that can lead me," Halep said.
"Nobody can compare with Serena, so I'm not going to do that now. He knows I'm a different person, I have a different style of playing, a different structure of the person. And we don't really talk about that. We just focus on ourselves, how we have with what we have to do to become the best version of myself."
In order to become the best version of herself on the court, Mouratoglou has encouraged Halep to believe in her offensive abilities. That more aggressive mindset was on display in her 6-2, 6-3 win over Zhang Shuai in the opening round of Madrid. Already known for her physical, counter-punching skills, Halep played a flatter, first-strike style.
"I kind of knew from before that I have to be a little bit more aggressive because the tennis is changing, in my opinion, and it's a lot of power," Halep said. "So I could say that some players could overpower me if I was, like, 100 meters back from the court. I didn't have like enough power or enough things to do to overplay them a little bit. So the power was getting me.
"Now being more aggressive, I think I have a better chance. So yeah, together we decided that and the fact that I trust him, it was much easier to do it. I didn't really trust before in myself that I'm able to do that game every day. With him I trusted and I did it every day for four weeks back in the academy and now becomes a little bit more natural.
"So it will take time, of course, I don't believe that it's going to be 100% every single minute that I play. But this is the mindset."
Halep: “That's the goal, to be a little bit more aggressive. We changed some things and today it went super well. I didn't play for five weeks officially, so it was not easy. And with a new coach it was even tougher. But I felt confident.”#MMOPEN pic.twitter.com/v7ed7kgtwf— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) April 28, 2022
Halep will face a tough challenge in her next round against World No.2 Paula Badosa. It will be the first meeting between the two. The Spaniard celebrated her return to her home tournament with a decisive 6-3, 6-0 win over Istanbul finalist Veronika Kudermetova. Excluding retirements, it was Badosa's quickest win of the year.
"She's probably in the best moment of her life in tennis and it's going to be a tough thing," Halep said. "My opinion, I have just to stay there to do what I have to do and to try my best. I have nothing to lose. I just want to find my way back on the tour.
"I'm not scared because I know how it is to face one of the best players in the world. But of course, it's going to be a big, big match, big challenge."
It will be a unique experience for Badosa, who was still toiling away at the lower levels when Halep held her position at the top of the game. Yet on Saturday, Badosa will be considered the favorite to win, though the idea made the 24-year-old chuckle.
"You think I'm the favorite there? Yeah? OK, I will take it," Badosa said, laughing.
"It's going to be very tough. She won this tournament. She plays center court, she played so many times, so she knows this court very well. It's going to be tough. She won Roland Garros, what can I say?
"But I think it's going to be an interesting match, because it's going to be quite a clay-court match very tactical, and I'm really looking forward to that. Of course she's a great champion. So maybe I'm the favorite or no, I will try to give my best because for sure she will push me to the limits."