PARIS (Reuters) - Simona Halep knows the claycourts of Paris well after winning the juniors’ title here six years ago, and she showed a firm intent to shake up the main tournament with a first-round demolition of Alisa Kleybanova.
The Romanian was the most improved player on the women’s tour in 2013 after winning six WTA titles, and she carried her great form into the new year, reaching the quarter-finals of the Australian Open.
The fourth seed showed she would be a force on her favourite clay surface in Paris when she took Maria Sharapova to three sets in the final of the Madrid Open, and the dimunitive baseliner offered her Russian opponent no mercy on the Philippe Chatrier show court on Tuesday.
Kleybanova was heading for this year’s first “double bagel” at the French Open with the score at 6-0 5-0, but Halep’s concentration slipped as she was serving for the match and she gave up two games before winning it 6-0 6-2.
“I was thinking at that moment at 5‑0 that I can win 6‑0, 6‑0, but wasn’t too good. I was a little bit relaxed after that, and it was cold,” she said.
But Halep was pleased with her “good start” and - significantly - said it was the first time she had not felt nervous before a match at one of the four grand slams.
The 22-year-old has had trouble relaxing on court, and learning not to put pressure on herself coincided with her astonishing run of success last year. She says she now “just wants to take pleasure in every point”.
At 1.68 metres tall, she is one of the smaller players on the circuit but she makes up for a lack of reach with her aggression from the baseline - the common denominator of Romanian women players, she says, is “we are fighting girls”.
Halep is from Constanta, on the Black Sea, - her father runs a dairy factory - but she moved to Bucharest when her talent was recognised. After winning the French Open juniors’ title she made the difficult decision to have breast reduction surgery.
After making little impact for several seasons, Halep showed her true potential at the Italian Open last season when she beat Agnieszka Radwanska en route to the semi-finals, where she was beaten by world No.1 Serena Williams, the only woman to win more tournaments than Halep in 2013.
Energised by her run at Rome, Halep picked up six titles in seven months and was the only woman to win on all surfaces. She is rated one of the smartest players on court and linked up with Belgian coach Wim Fissette, who coached former world No.1 Kim Clijsters, after the Australian Open.
She also has just the right person to guide her at Roland Garros - her manager, Virginia Ruzici, the Romanian who won the women’s title here in 1978.
Editing by Neville Hanlon