WATCH: Simona Halep after her second-round win at the Australian Open

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These can feel like uncertain and unsettling times for tennis fans. For many years, we had rock-solid stability at the top of the sport, brought to us by Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams. Now, as 2022 gets underway, everything feels like it’s in flux. A new generation is slowly taking over the men’s game, while each Grand Slam event introduces us to a new women’s star of the moment. Between their breakthroughs at the US Open, and their early exits in Australia, Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez gave us the sports-fan equivalent of whiplash. And now Paula Badosa, a virtual unknown 12 months ago, seems like a decent bet to win the whole thing Down Under.

But there have been some soothingly familiar faces and games in Melbourne as well. Marin Cilic, a finalist there in 2018, turned back the clock against one of the young guns, Andrey Rublev, last night. Victoria Azarenka, champion in 2012 and 2013, demolished Elina Svitolina to reach the fourth round. Maybe most surprising for me, Simona Halep has won her first eight matches of 2022, and hasn’t dropped a set in her first three at the Australian Open.

I say “most surprising” because Halep’s future on tour seemed to me to be in question by the end of 2021. She had turned 30. She had gotten married. She had ended her partnership with Darren Cahill—the “most important person in my career,” as she said. She had dropped from her traditional perch in the Top 10 down to No. 20. And she had suffered a very sudden and frustrating calf tear in Rome that had kept her out of the two Slams that she had won, Roland Garros and Wimbledon—she was sadly unable to defend her 2019 crowd on Centre Court. And then, after recovering from the calf injury, she hurt her knee and had to pull out of her last tournament, in Linz.

All of that might have deterred another player from making another comeback. Instead, it seems to have motivated Halep to get back on tour and on the court while she still can.

Halep's fighting spirit—the fist pumps, the death stares at her coaches, the occasional fits of rage—that fans will remember most, and that may be most welcome in 2022.

Halep's fighting spirit—the fist pumps, the death stares at her coaches, the occasional fits of rage—that fans will remember most, and that may be most welcome in 2022.

“The lowest point was mental because I’ve been exhausted and I’ve been a little bit scared of the injuries,” she said this week. “I didn’t think that I want to stop tennis because I don’t love tennis anymore. I felt that I might stop tennis because of the injuries, but was nothing strong in my mind. I still like to play tennis, to play tournaments, so I’m in a good spot now.”

Rather than dwell on her problems or fears, she tried to keep her late-season successes, which included a run to a final at home in Romania, in the forefront of her mind.

“I think the matches from last year and the end of the year, the smaller tournaments, helped me,” said Halep, who is working with Adrian Marcu and Daniel Dobre. “I had a few good matches. I got the confidence back then.

“Now I feel normal, I feel good, and I feel ready to fight.”

It’s that fighting spirit—the fist pumps, the death stares at her coaches, the occasional fits of rage—that fans will remember most, and that may be most welcome in 2022. Halep always cares. So far this year, though, she hasn't had to fight all that much. In eight matches, she’s surrendered just one set, and she has lost just five games in her last two matches.

On Saturday, in her 6-2, 6-1 win over Danka Kovinic, Halep was in full flight. She used her slice backhand to set up her drive backhand. She didn’t hesitate to let her forehand fly. She went for return winners, and made them. She even showed off some good wide second serves, a shot that has always been a weakness.

I feel great physically first of all,” Halep said. “Mentally I’m confident and also strong, I would say. Feeling the game. Feeling joy out there. I think that helps me to be positive and to be confident that I have a chance every time I step on the court.”

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Halep’s draw hasn’t hurt, either. She has yet to face a seed in Melbourne, and she won’t when she faces Alizé Cornet in the fourth round. While she’s playing freely and happily and feeling rejuvenated now, we know the frustrations will show when she gets into a tight battle or falls behind—she wouldn’t be Simo if she was cool, calm, and collected every second of a match.

Halep says her goal is to get back into the Top 10, which seems eminently doable, considering she’s No. 15 now. Asked about her thoughts on winning more Slams, she echoes what I wrote at the top: Anyone can win anything at any time right now.

“There’s nobody like Serena [Williams] that’s dominating tennis like she did. Everybody can see that,” Halep said. “I feel like anyone from Top 10, or over Top 10, can win a Grand Slam or a tournament.

"Yeah, there is no big difference between those players in the top. I feel that I have my chance, of course.”

Halep can surely see the possibilities in her half of this draw. If she beats Cornet, she would play either Danielle Collins or Elise Mertens, and the winner of that would be in the semifinals.

How much does Halep want to win another Slam? She contradicts herself from one sentence to the next.

“That's why I'm still playing,” she says. “But I don't think about that anymore.”

That’s classic Simona: She wants not to care, but she can’t help it. And that’s why it’s good to have her back for another year.