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The resurgence: Halep & Cornet set up enticing fourth-round clash at the Australian Open

After an injury-plagued 2021 season, the former world No 1 is rediscovering her winning touch. The Romanian has now won 15 of her last 16 matches on the tour

Romania's Simona Halep at the Australian Open Romania’s Simona Halep at the Australian Open Image Credit: AI / Reuters / Panoramic

Australian Open 2022 | Draw Order of play |3rd round

In 2021, the centre stage in women’s tennis had been cornered by the winners at the big events – Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka, French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova, Wimbledon champion Ash Barty, US Open champion Emma Raducanu and WTA Finals champion Garbine Muguruza. Even the breakthroughs of Leylah Fernandez, Anett Kontaveit and Ons Jabeur grabbed a major share of the headlines.

While all these players were enjoying their time in the spotlight, former world No 1 Simona Halep had a 2021 she could not wait to get done with.

A calf injury sustained in Rome in May forced Halep to pull out of the French Open and Wimbledon, the two Grand Slams she has triumphed at, as well as the Olympics. Coming back during the summer hardcourt stretch in August, understandably Halep took some time to find her groove again.

But flying under the radar, Halep has been putting together quite an impressive streak since the end of October. The 30-year-old reached the final of the Transylvania Open in her native Romania. Although she had to pull out of the WTA Linz event after winning two matches due to a knee injury, the Romanian began 2022 on a winning note by lifting the Melbourne Summer Set series title – her first title in almost two years.

Halep has a good track-record in Melbourne

On Saturday, Halep scored a comprehensive 6-1, 6-2 win over Montenegro’s Danka Kovinic to win for the 15th time in her last 16 matches. The win moves her into the fourth round of the Australian Open for the fifth time in a row and the seventh time in the last nine years.

Halep dominated the proceedings on Saturday, getting in 73 percent of her first serves in and winning 70 percent of those points, as compared to just 43 percent for Kovinic on both stats.

The Romanian also hit 19 winners (17 unforced errors) as compared to 11 for her opponent (25 unforced errors) and broke on six of the 10 break point chances she had.

I feel fresh. I feel that the pressure is off.

Simona Halep

“The last (few) months. I feel great physically first of all. 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. I feel I’m in a good spot.”

“I feel fresh. I feel that the pressure is off. I feel also that I have expectations from myself, but they are good expectations because I have worked a lot in the off-season. I have no injuries. That helps me to be in a good spot mentally and also with confidence.”

Since reaching her a Grand Slam fourth round for the first time at the 2013 US Open, Halep has been one of the most consistent players at the Majors. In her last 30 Grand Slams, including the 2022 Australian Open, Halep has now reached the second week on 21 occasions.

Birthday girl Cornet aims for first career Grand Slam QF

France’s Alize Cornet celebrates winning her third round match against Slovenia’s Tamara Zidansek at the Australian Open Image Credit: AI / Reuters / Panoramic

Halep’s next opponent will be the Frenchwoman Alize Cornet, who celebrated her 32nd birthday on Saturday with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 win over the No 29 seed Tamara Zidansek.

The former world No 11 came from a set and 4-1 down to defeat Zidansek and reach the second week in Melbourne for the second time in her career, 13 years after her first.

On Monday, the former world No 11 will be hoping to make her first career Grand Slam quarter-final. While Halep will be the favourite on paper, it’s Cornet who surprisingly holds a 3-1 edge in their career head-to-head, the last of which came in 2015.

“It’s always been tough match against Alize. I expect actually a tough battle. She’s fighting till the end and she never gives up. I am the same, so hopefully will be a nice match. Every match is different. I will take that. Even if I lost few times to her, it’s a new challenge and I’m ready for it.”

I think now she’s back on track for real.

Alizé Cornet on Simona Halep

Cornet, herself, says she feels Halep is back to her best level and is playing with renewed ambition. “I feel she’s kind of back at her best level. I’ve seen her play in Melbourne when she won the tournament. She’s a player that I really admire, that I also identify myself a little bit to. She has this will and she’s such a fighter, the way she plays with variation and stuff.

“What I saw last year in her game has definitely changed I think these past months. I think now she’s back on track for real. I can see she is ambitious in her eyes. I would not be surprised if she goes very far in the tournament.”

Cornet is playing her 60th consecutive major, which puts her in second position on the list for most consecutive appearances in a women’s Grand Slam main draw (behind Ai Sugiyama’s 62) and the Frenchwoman, who said she is considering retiring at the end of the 2022 season, will be hoping to break that record before she hangs up her racquet.

But for now, she is trying to stay in the present and not obsess about making her first Grand Slam quarter-final. “I don’t want to think about this quarterfinal because I have the feeling it’s getting a little, like, an obsession. I don’t want it to be an obsession. I’m enjoying so much my run here so far.

“I had a really great time on the court again with the crowd supporting me. It’s just amazing feeling. I want to fill my heart with all this energy without thinking I might get finally my quarterfinal that I’m looking for for the past 15 years. We’ll see how it goes. I will keep doing my best on the court. If it happens, great. If not, I mean, it’s still amazing what I’m living every day here.”

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