MELBOURNE, Australia - Simona Halep's relationship with the Australian Open has been a difficult one. While clay has been, traditionally, her best surface, Halep has become one of the game's best on hardcourts and Melbourne Park should be a perfect venue for her hardcourt game. Of her 14 career titles, four of the last have come on hardcourts, including titles in Indian Wells and Montreal.
Since her breakout season in 2013, Halep has made the quarterfinals twice in Melbourne. Each of those runs, in 2014 and 2015, ended in lopsided losses that Halep repeatedly blamed on stress and nerves. After losing 6-3, 6-0 to eventual finalist Dominika Cibulkova in 2014, she told reporters, "I had emotions, big emotions, and I couldn't manage this. Before the match I was very nervous and I didn't feel the ball at all. I couldn't move my body and I couldn't play."
A year later she lost 6-4, 6-0 to Ekaterina Makarova, again in the quarterfinals. "When I started to play, I just felt a little bit my body, it's stressed, my mind maybe," she told reporters then. "Yeah, I felt it only during the match. Not before or yesterday, but just today."
Last year, Halep came into Melbourne under-prepared after illness and an Achilles injury derailed her pre-season and lead-up events. She lost 6-4, 6-3 to Zhang Shuai, who would go on to make the quarterfinals. But this time it wasn't about nerves. Halep was outplayed that day, hit off the court by Zhang's flat game-style, and the Romanian took the disappointment in stride.
"When I played here two years before, and last year I lost in the quarters because I was blocked, I couldn't manage the situation, the emotions," Halep said after the loss to Zhang. "But today was different. Today I think I was okay. Was only about the game."
The 25-year-old has made great strides in how she competes at big tournaments. Asked about her opening match against Shelby Rogers, Halep said:"Actually, I have to do my game, even if she hits strong. I've played before with few players that are hitting very strong, so I know how I have to play against them.
"But you never know. It's going to be a new match, new day. Just going there to fight till the end, even if the game is not working sometimes. I have just to stay there and to fight."
To fight. Halep prides herself in being "Fighter Girl" but admits that the instinct can come and go depending on her nerves. She showed marked improvement in this department last season, highlighted by a fantastic performance against Serena Williams in a three-set loss in the US Open quarterfinals.
Some of it can be chalked up to experience and maturity; some of it with some strategic changes to her pre-tournament preparation. Under coach Darren Cahill, Halep has taken to arriving at the tour's biggest tournaments early in order to get acclimated to the condition and rhythms of her environment and ease the pre-tournament anxiety. It is a move that paid off repeatedly last year, with wins at the Mutua Madrid Open, Rogers Cup, and runs to the quarterfinals of Wimbledon and the US Open.
This year Halep started her season with a second-round loss to eventual champion Katerina Siniakova at the Shenzhen Open. It may have been tempting to try to play the Apia International Sydney last week to get more matches in. Halep kept her original schedule, arriving in Melbourne and practicing at Melbourne Park for the full week.
"I feel good," Halep told reporters during her pre-tournament press conference on Sunday. "I was preparing pretty good during this week. I'm waiting. I'm a little bit nervous. But it's normal. I'm fit."
In fact, Halep has been in Australia since December to train with Cahill. "I came earlier to Australia to try to, like, get used to the heat," she said. "In Romania, it's very cold."
Eschewing a sub-zero winter at home and spending it under the Aussie sun has led to a happy, relaxed Simona Halep. It would appear that the laid-back attitude of both her coach and her surroundings has rubbed off. When asked what it was like to spend Christmas away from home, Halep laughed about the relaxed atmosphere.
"They were in the flip-flops, in the pool," Halep said. "In Romania, we were used to a formal dinner. Everyone is very well dressed. You don't have to move much," she laughed.
"Yeah, with [Darren's] family, I had very different Christmas. It was fun. I was in the shorts. So it was, yeah, a big difference between these two."
Halep will try to take this relaxed attitude into a potentially tricky first-round match against Shelby Rogers on Monday. Halep is in the top half of the draw in a quarter that includes Svetlana Kuznetsova, Elina Svitolina, and Venus Williams. If she can get through the first two rounds and get into a tournament rhythm, she's in a very good position to make her first Australian Open semifinal. From there, it's anyone's tournament.