Earlier-than-expected losses; no titles for several months—and counting; questions about form: Those are all circumstances world No. 3 Simona Halep is going through as she begins her 2019 Mutua Madrid Open campaign. She defeated qualifier Margarita Gasparyan, 6-0, 6-4, on Sunday in a solid opening round performance.
In what might feel like a bit of deja vu, she also experienced all of that in 2016 and 2017 before taking the court at La Caja Magica. In both of those years, Romania’s top player emerged triumphant with wins over Dominika Cibulkova and Kristina Mladenovic, respectively, to turn around each of those campaigns.
Now, as she gets ready to prepare for her title defense at the French Open, will she be able to pull off that feat for a third time?
Last year in Madrid, her two-year title run at the tournament came to an end at the hands of Karolina Pliskova in the quarterfinals. Still, by the time Roland Garros came around, Halep was the heavy favorite to win the tournament. After finishing as the runner-up in Rome leading up to Paris, she kept that run of form going over two weeks, showing both dominance and determination along the way: In four of her seven matches, Halep took them quite comfortably in straight sets and in the other three, she had to rally from a set down, including in the final against Sloane Stephens.
With the win, Halep shed her title as the best active player without a major, a designation she was forced to hold on to from the start of the year after dropping the Australian Open final to Caroline Wozniacki in a battle of the yet-to-be Slam winners. After her triumph at Roland Garros and the proverbial getting the monkey off her back, it seemed that Halep would be able to break away completely from the pack as the number-one ranking had been shifting back and forth among a number of players. However, after a strong summer hard-court season, her body betrayed her as a back injury forced her to the sidelines at the end of 2018.
Another major disruption came in the form of her and Darren Cahill’s wildly successful partnership grinding to a halt as the coach decided to step away to focus on family. Halep decided to enter 2019 without someone on the sidelines, but after some early losses, she went through what seemed like a carousel of coaches before partnering with Daniel Dobre in Miami, where she advanced to the semifinals.
That was her most recent WTA tournament before entering Madrid, but in her last on-court appearance in the Fed Cup semifinals against France, the former world No. 1 looked strong as she defeated both Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic in her first time on clay this year. However, she was slated to play in Stuttgart, Germany, the week after, but had to pull out of the tournament due to a hip injury suffered in the Fed Cup doubles rubber.
With the natural grind of the tour and realizing that preservation is crucial, recovering from a grueling weekend was a necessity. Now, she’s ready to make her return to the court at one of her best tournaments: Along with her “home” event, the Bucharest Open, Madrid is the only other clay-court event she’s won more than once.
She’ll open up play against qualifier Margarita Gasparyan, and is drawn for a quarterfinal battle against Elina Svitolina, the sixth seed. She’s in the top half of the draw and could only see the player who came away with the title last year, Petra Kvitova, if they were to meet in the final. Kvitova knows Madrid well, too, having won the event multiple times and is the first two-time winner on the WTA Tour this year.
Halep has yet to enter the winners’ circle in 2019, but if she were to do it and change the course of her year, Madrid—like in 2016 and ‘17—is as good a place as any to start.