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Halep displaying signs of Eiffel power

Simona Halep of Romania in action during her 6-2, 6-4 victory against Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia in the Madrid Open final on Saturday. With Maria Sharapova suspended and Serena Williams in patchy form, Halep is a genuine contender for the French
Simona Halep of Romania in action during her 6-2, 6-4 victory against Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia in the Madrid Open final on Saturday. With Maria Sharapova suspended and Serena Williams in patchy form, Halep is a genuine contender for the French Open crown.PHOTO: REUTERS

MADRID • With the year's second Grand Slam starting in Paris in two weeks, the men's singles appears likely to be dominated by Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray. But choosing a women's champion is far more problematic.

Serena Williams may be defending champion and top seed at the tennis tournament, but she has only contested three events this year and has not won a title for nine months.

Two-time champion Maria Sharapova is suspended and Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber has had an indifferent time since her Melbourne triumph and lost in the first round last week in the Madrid Open.

Former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka looked strong with back-to-back titles in Indian Wells and Miami before suffering a back injury, while Agnieszka Radwanska, Garbine Muguruza and Petra Kvitova have been handicapped by inconsistency.

So, it is timely that Simona Halep, who reveres Roland Garros more than any other venue on the WTA circuit, has recaptured the form to make the petite but powerful Romanian a genuine contender. On Saturday, she won the Madrid Open by beating winning Slovakia's Dominika Cibulkova 6-2, 6-4 in the final.

Put Halep on the clay at Roland Garros and she could not be happier.

French Open junior champion in 2008, she looked to be a winner-in-waiting two years ago when she reached the final without dropping a set before losing to Sharapova in a match that lasted more than three hours.

"It's my favourite tournament," said Halep, 24. "I adore Paris. I love the city and not just because of playing at Roland Garros; I like the restaurants and to go walking on the boulevards and avenues. Just thinking about going there makes me smile."

However, a year ago she lost in the second round to Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, 10 years her senior.

It was a hard defeat to take and Halep was forced to admit: "Last year was just about the pressure. I couldn't handle it and wanted too much from myself.

"All the time I was thinking, 'I have to do the same thing and get to the final.' Such a big mistake. If you think like this you are very stressed. But I am over that now."

Despite that disappointment, Halep's form continued at a sufficient level to end 2015 ranked the world's second-best player, even though the concluding few months were handicapped by Achilles' tendon problems.

Further injuries have seen her ranking drop to seventh.

However, her self-belief has returned with the Madrid Open triumph and, with Roland Garros looming large after this week's Italian Open in Rome, the Romanian is the player in form.

And this time she insists that she is mentally ready for the big challenge that awaits.

"Right now I feel like it's easy for me to play the game," she said. "Everyone you talk to says the women's title in Paris is wide open but I have my confidence back and once again, after maybe too long, I have the chance to win the trophy I've always wanted."

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 09, 2016, with the headline 'Halep displaying signs of Eiffel power'. Print Edition | Subscribe