In the midst of the worst year of her life in professional tennis, after falling outside the Top 10 for the first time in more than seven years, Simona Halep went through some drastic changes. She got married, turned 30 and, earlier this year, started working with Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ former coach.

“I felt exhausted and I felt that there is no chance I can be in the top anymore,” Halep told CNN Sports in Paris. “I was almost done before coming here because I didn’t have that fire anymore. So coming here I found it and I discovered again why I play tennis.

“I play tennis because I love it. He brought that fire back.”

You can see it for yourself Tuesday, when the No.19-seeded Halep meets lucky loser Nastasja Schunk in a first-round match.

This season, Halep is 19-6 (and 4-2 under Mouratoglou). That's only five fewer victories than last year’s entire total. Halep collected her 23rd title, at the Melbourne 250, and reached the semifinals in Dubai and Indian Wells. She’s 4-2 on clay so far and secure in the knowledge that she’s navigated this Parisian maze of mirrors before. The 2018 French Open champion has been striking the ball in practice – according to observers – with confidence.

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It would be understandable if her opponent, an 18-year-old German qualifier, finds herself on the opposite end of that spectrum. Consider the cathartic, unlikely turn of events that delivered her to the biggest moment of her young life:

Schunk’s No.165 ranking got her into the 128-player qualifying draw, and last Tuesday on Court 3, she beat Brazil’s Laura Pigossi in three sets. A day later on the same court, it was straight sets against Veronica Cepede Royg. Friday, though, brought a Court 6 loss to No.17 seed Hailey Baptiste, 5-7, 6-4, 2-6. And, she might have imagined, the end of her run in Paris.

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And then Croatia’s Ana Konjuh withdrew with a reported leg injury. Suddenly, Schunk was into her first Grand Slam main draw and in line for a $94,550 pay day – dwarfing her career earnings of $56,156. Schunk has already had some experience on the big stage; she reached the Wimbledon Junior finals last year and lost her first WTA main-draw match to Belinda Bencic earlier in 2021 in Stuttgart.

Halep’s path forward won’t be easy. Next up would be the winner of Zheng Qinwen-Maryna Zanevska, potentially followed by 2017 Roland Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko – with another former champ, No.1 seed Iga Swiatek, looming in the Round of 16.

Photo by WTA

No one in this draw has played more than Halep’s 41 matches at Roland Garros; the three active leaders – Serena and Venus Williams and Svetlana Kuznetsova – are all absent. Likewise, Halep’s nine clay-court titles are the best in this year’s field. She’s seeking her fourth French Open final. Since 2000, only Serena and Justine Henin (four) have played more.

Clearly, Mouratoglou’s faith in Halep has renewed her faith in herself.

“What he’s telling me actually I accepted it because I know it’s good for me,” Halep said. “He knows better in this position because I was super down with myself, low confidence. So I trust him 100 percent and I’m doing super easy what he’s saying.

“Actually I feel good. I have no problems with that.”

Upset watch

No.13 Jelena Ostapenko versus Lucia Bronzetti: On the first day of play, 2016 Roland Garros champion Garbiñe Muguruza lost to Kaia Kanepi. It could happen to the 2017 winner, too. Ostapenko won the title in Dubai, then reached the semifinals in Doha. Since then, she’s 0-5. Bronzetti, meanwhile, is a sporty 23-11 for the year, including ITF matches. She’s coming off a semifinal run in Rabat, Morocco, where she lost to eventual champion Martina Trevisan. The two have never met.

By the numbers

No.3 Paula Badosa, who plays Frenchwoman Fiona Ferro, has 22 wins in 2022, third behind No.1 seed Iga Swiatek (37) and the already departed Ons Jabeur (25). Badosa first came to Roland Garros as a 10-year-old, to follow fellow Spaniard Rafael Nadal in his third successful run in 2007.

“To be honest,’ Badosa told reporters before the tournament began, “because I’m a huge fan. He was my idol. But I’m still a tennis fan, because I have been here a few days ago already, but I love to watch matches. I have been watching qualie matches, because I really enjoy the sport.”

In their only meeting. Four years ago in Rabat, Badosa had to rally for a 5-7, 6-4, 6-0 win over Ferro.

And finally …

No.7 seed Aryna Sabalenka also in action against Chloe Paquet, suffered a rough beginning to the season, but the European clay has revived her spirits. She reached the final in Stuttgart, losing to Swiatek, and after a loss in Madrid, the semifinals in Rome, falling again to Swiatek. In theory, Sabalenka could meet Badosa in the quarterfinals. This is the final day of the first round.