NEW YORK, NY, USA - World No.2 Simona Halep was on the practice court when she got the news that she would be opening up her US Open against 2006 champion Maria Sharapova in the first round on Monday night.
"My reaction was normal, because this year I had very tough draws every time almost," Halep said with a laugh. "Of course was a little bit, like, 'How is it possible again?'"
"It's going to be a big challenge, first round of a Grand Slam, to face her. She beat me six times. So maybe I will change this. We will see Monday."
Halep will be bidding for her first win over Sharapova, having gone 0-6, while the Russian will be looking to extend her undefeated record in US Open first rounds to 11-0. Halep and Sharapova's rivalry was a significant one during the 2014 season, with the two going to three sets in the French Open final, Madrid Open final, and the quarterfinals of the Western & Southern Open, with Sharapova edging Halep each time. They have played just once since 2014.
"I was so close many times," Halep said when asked why Sharapova has been such a difficult riddle to solve. "I don't know exactly what to say about this, but just a little bit difficult because maybe the game that she's playing flat, she's playing risky, and maybe in the most important moments during the matches against her I couldn't step in and just take the opportunity."
Asked whether she's a different player than in 2014, Halep said yes. "I am different in all the ways, in my opinion. Mentally, also as a player, my game, I feel stronger than 2014. I feel with more experience. I faced many situations in these three years.
"I feel better, and I feel that I'm ready to face her again. Doesn't matter what the result will be. I just want to change something. Maybe I can win. We will see."
Halep is one of eight women who can leave New York with the No.1 ranking, though you don't need to remind her about that fact. The 25-year-old has been within a win, and in some cases a handful of points, from seizing the top ranking, most recently a week ago in the Cincinnati final, where she lost 6-1, 6-0 to No.3 Garbiñe Muguruza.
"Well, in French Open, [I was] really close, and then in Wimbledon," Halep said. "But I can't say [I was close in the] final in Cincinnati because the score was pretty bad so I was not close," she said laughing.
"I'm not thinking [about it] anymore. It was enough. I thought about it too much, I think, and maybe the pressure came in important moments, so now is gone. Everyone can take the No. 1, and if it's gonna happen, I will deserve it. If not, [I don't]. We will see."
For now, No.1 scenarios can wait. Halep has lost in the first round of a tournament just once this year, at the Australian Open when she struggled with a knee injury. She has also made the semifinals or better at six of her last nine events, dating back to the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, the same tournament at which Sharapova made her comeback.
Sharapova is playing just her fifth event and first Slam since returning to the tour after her suspension. She comes into the US Open having played just one hardcourt match this summer, a three-set win over Jennifer Brady at the Bank of the West Classic in July. Sharapova subsequently withdrew from Stanford, Toronto, and Cincinnati due to a left forearm injury. The former No.1 is bidding to claim her first Top 20 win of the season.
"I don't want to put pressure on myself that I'm facing Maria Sharapova," Halep said. "It's a normal player. She's coming back, so she played really well in the past, so she's still a good player.
"So I have just to think about myself and to focus on myself."
"I just want to do my best, to try to win the match and of course to enjoy it. It's a big, big match."
Halep will play Sharapova on Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday at 7pm EST.