No. 1 Halep has upped con­fi­dence level ahead of Aus­tralian Open

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - TENNIS -

MEL­BOURNE, Aus­tralia — Si­mona Halep was try­ing on her new shoes when she got the news di­rect from the draw about her tough sec­tion con­tain­ing both Ser­ena Wil­liams and Venus Wil­liams at the Aus­tralian Open.

Even be­fore she con­tem­plates pos­si­ble back-to-back matches in the third and fourth round against Venus and Ser­ena, the top-ranked Halep has to get through an open­ing match against Kaia Kanepi, who beat her in the first round at the U.S. Open last year.

Dar­ren Cahill, a TV com­men­ta­tor and Halep’s coach un­til re­cently, texted her with de­tails of the draw.

“When I saw the mes­sage, I was like, ‘OK, what­ever,’ ” she said. “I just en­joy the mo­ment with the shoes, then I’ll think about the match. That’s it.”

She can do that now that she con­sid­ers her­self a gen­uine No. 1. Halep en­tered last year with the top rank­ing but with­out a ma­jor to her credit.

Af­ter los­ing a three-set fi­nal to Caro­line Woz­ni­acki at the Aus­tralian Open, Halep briefly lost the No. 1 spot but re­gained it quickly and will be into her 48th con­sec­u­tive week in the top spot when the sea­son’s first ma­jor starts. Her break­through at the French Open gave her all the con­fir­ma­tion she’d ever needed.

“It’s a big dif­fer­ence — I can say in­side my­self be­cause I did what I wanted to do. I won a Grand Slam fi­nally. Now I can say I’m a real No. 1,” Halep said of the dif­fer­ence be­tween her ap­proaches to this sea­son and to last. “Be­fore I said with­out a Grand Slam, you are not a real No. 1.

“I’m happy. I’m en­joy­ing the time. Ev­ery­thing I’ve done last year made me be more re­laxed. I try just to im­prove more in my game.”

Halep, ham­pered by a back in­jury, lost four straight matches to fin­ish 2018. She then was beaten by Ash­leigh Barty at the Syd­ney In­ter­na­tional to start this sea­son, but she says her back is fine. She’s also with­out a coach in Mel­bourne, an ap­point­ment she’s tak­ing time to con­sider.

U.S. Open cham­pion Naomi Osaka looms as a po­ten­tial semi­fi­nal ri­val for Halep, or Ser­ena Wil­liams, or who­ever comes out of the tough top quar­ter.

A lot has changed for Osaka since cap­tur­ing her first ma­jor ti­tle in New York last Septem­ber, hav­ing never even reached the quar­ter­fi­nals of a Grand Slam event.

Her vic­tory there was over­shad­owed to a de­gree by Ser­ena Wil­liams’ clash with chair um­pire Car­los Ramos dur­ing the fi­nal and sub­se­quent $17,000 fine.

Wil­liams missed the last Aus­tralian Open — she won here in 2017 while preg­nant — af­ter hav­ing a baby. But she reached two ma­jor fi­nals af­ter re­turn­ing to ten­nis. Despite be­ing seeded 16th, she re­mains a strong con­tender to win her 24th Grand Slam sin­gles ti­tle.

Osaka, mean­while, is learn­ing as she goes.

The 21-year-old said she’s slightly awk­ward in one-on-one con­ver­sa­tions, but feels more at home an­swer­ing ques­tions and throw­ing in one-lin­ers at packed news con­fer­ences.

As for her goals here, in a women’s field that has fea­tured eight ma­jor win­ners across the past two years, Osaka said it’s a work in progress, start­ing with her first-round against Magda Linette on Tues­day.

“No one wants to lose in the first round of a Slam,” she said. “From there, I’ve been in the third round 100 mil­lion times (in re­al­ity it’s nine times) al­ready. That would be my next goal. Hope­fully semis af­ter that. Then I can think about, like, the fi­nals and win­ning.”

Kin Cheung / As­so­ci­ated Press

Si­mona Halep, who won the French Open last year, is in her 48th con­sec­u­tive week atop the women’s ten­nis rank­ings.

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