To say that Simona Halep has had an unlucky start to 2016 would be an understatement.
The Romanian world No3, who will be looking to defend her title in Dubai this week, was struck by illness during the offseason that hampered her preparations and things only got worse for her when she entered the new year.
She was trying to fight infections in her body with antibiotics while also dealing with a recurring Achilles injury Halep thought had disappeared. She won two matches before falling in the Sydney semi-finals to kick off her season then suffered a shock opening round exit at the Australian Open to Chinese world No133 Zhang Shuai.
The sequence of events in her own words paints a gruesome picture.
“It started in the beginning of December. I was practicing but it wasn’t easy for me because I got tired very often and very fast. After that I had a stomach infection and I had to take some days off,” Halep told Sport360 on Sunday during an interview at the Jumeirah Creekside Hotel.
“It was tough, I came to Australia still taking antibiotics and it was tough for me to start playing tournaments. Then I had the Achilles injury and then before Melbourne, in Sydney, I got infection of my nose and ear. So it was tough to play, it was tough to stay there focused.
“I was scared a little bit about my health and then I said that I have to stop, to get good treatment to come back.”
She found out the sinus infection she had was a symptom of a deviated septum that requires surgery and was planning on having the procedure done this month.
But a somewhat positive two days in Fed Cup last week, that saw her beat Petra Kvitova and lose a tight one to Karolina Pliskova in Romania’s 2-3 defeat to Czech Republic, convinced her she was strong enough to continue playing and she has indefinitely postponed surgery for now.
They say hindsight is 20/20 and Halep, who has been struggling to master the art of knowing when to rest and when to compete, admits that perhaps skipping the Australian summer would have been the way to go.
“Yes maybe it would’ve been better if I didn’t go to the first tournaments because I had the stomach infection but I thought it was going to be easy. But the jet-lag and everything was tough for me to adapt, it was tough to play,” said the Dubai top seed.
“But I don’t want to regret anything and now I’m just keeping an eye on my health more and on enjoying playing.”
Australia may not have gone well for Halep but it indirectly has given her belief in her chances at the grand slams moving forward, thanks to the surprise triumph of Angelique Kerber, who upset Serena Williams in a sensational Australian Open final.
While Williams remains the undisputed world No1 and played six great matches in Melbourne before losing to the German, the fact is, the American has now suffered unexpected defeats in the past two majors – to Roberta Vinci in the US Open semis and to Kerber Down Under.
It is a reality that is not lost on Halep.
“Now, me, I’m thinking that I’m able to win a grand slam after I saw Pennetta winning and Kerber winning,” Halep says with great conviction.
“It’s easier for us now to think that we’re able to win a grand slam. Till now it was tough because Serena was there and we thought that she is the only winner, maybe that’s why it was tough to win. But now everyone can think that they are able to win a grand slam.”
On Kerber’s win, Halep added: “It was great, I sent her a message straightaway after the final. I was really happy for her and she deserves it. Because she’s working hard, I know her and she’s a good person. So many congrats to her.”
Halep declares that she is now “perfect” physically but she is on a quest to regain her confidence and mental strength.
Confidence is a tricky thing. It is often the toughest to acquire, yet quickest to lose.
Despite being consistently inside the top-10 for the past 24 months, Halep concedes that confidence has not been as easy to maintain.
“It’s tough to speak about confidence. It’s confidence in how you play during the match, how you hit the ball, you hit with less power when you’re not confident and because I was sick, that’s why I feel I’m struggling a little bit during the matches,” the 24-year-old explains.
“Now I’m feeling okay, if I’m healthy 100 per cent, I can say that confidence is there. I just have to go and play the matches because I need matches.
“You get the confidence with matches and victories.”
The good news for Halep is that she believes she has the “best team” she’s ever had in her corner. The Romanian former Roland Garros runner-up has made one shuffle after another within her coaching staff, from Wim Fissette to Thomas Hogstedt to Victor Ionita but she is now working full-time with Darren Cahill and has complete faith in the Aussie.
“I want to get stronger always and maybe I ask too much from people. I am very (impatient),” she confessed.
Halep says the toughest thing about being at the top is handling the pressure but that Cahill has been great in helping her deal with that.
Exactly a year ago after Fed Cup, she had said that carrying Romanian hopes on her shoulder was “the worst feeling”. This year? She says the tie in Romania last week was “the best in terms of atmosphere and feeling”.
She credits Cahill for her newfound calmness.
“He’s helped me the most in that I’m more relaxed and I can see life differently a little bit,” says Halep.
“I’m a good worker, I want to be focused on what I have to do but we can relax ourselves a little bit more because we have to enjoy the life. Life is not just on court, we have to do something also off court.”
On what she feels she needs to improve upon, Halep added: “In a big picture I want to get stronger. I know I have a lot of work to do but I’m okay, I’m relaxed.
“I have to improve my tactics on court, to see the game and to change a little bit more often during the match. But also mentally… Darren is a good talking man. He talks good with me and that helps me a lot.”
Last year in Dubai, Halep was joined by a huge entourage of family and friends with whom she was spotted having loud and fun dinners at the Aviation Club.
She is slightly changing her approach this year.
“This year it’s quiet. I need just to stay with myself and try to come back fast,” she says.
Garbine Muguruza insists being one of the world’s top players has not changed her and the Spaniard is aware that maintaining her position will be no simple task.
Muguruza, seeded No2 in Dubai this week, made a meteoric rise in the rankings last season thanks to her runner-up showing at Wimbledon and she knows she often has a target on her back at the bigger tournaments.
The world No5, who made the semi-finals in Dubai last year and opens against either a qualifier or Elina Svitolina on Wednesday, is not putting much expectation on herself regarding this new season and while she has been getting lots more attention due to her results, she confirms it has not changed her.
“I think not at all. I am just the same girl. I don’t think changing is going to help me. I have seen some examples of people, especially when you are young… it is very hard to keep that level,” said the 22-year-old.
Muguruza, who played with a foot problem at the Australian Open in Melbourne last month, where she lost in the third round to Barbora Strycova, says the injury has healed and that she currently is playing with “no pain”.
The Venezuelan-born Spaniard believes she has one big take-away from that clash with Strycova.
“I kind of learnt a lot from that match. I didn’t play well. I just felt kind of blocked that day. So just have to find resources to be able to not go in that position because sometimes I am like, ‘hey, I feel the pressure’. I have to deal with that. So I just got to find a way not to go through that,” she explains.
Muguruza has embraced the pressure that comes with being a top-five player and has many times expressed how much she relishes competing on the world’s biggest stages.
She had a breakthrough moment in 2014 when she beat Serena Williams at the French Open en route to the quarter-finals then lost to the American in the Wimbledon final a year later.
“Well, I think it is a lot of things to deal with sometimes, but I would not change this position,” she says on being part of the game’s elite.
“I think it is a great place to be… to be up, to play good, to be seeded. So even though sometimes you feel more pressure, you have more expectations, not only me but also a lot of people, it’s just something that you have to deal with. When you go more up, it’s getting worse, so I think it is just part of the job.”
Top seeds Simona Halep and Garbine Muguruza met the media ahead of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships 2016 and also had a go at speaking Arabic for Sport360.com!
The No.1 and No.2 players in the draw were joined by two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro to preview the tournament, which begins on Monday.
Sport360.com will have analysis, video and interviews from the Aviation Club Tennis Centre throughout the tournament.
Muguruza practicing on centre dressed in what looks like a jumpsuit?! Sam's t-shirt says "Not my fault" lol pic.twitter.com/SN0aJYCS6E— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) February 14, 2016