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Thursday, April 19 Sports

Defending champion Halep hopes to continue momentum at Connecticut Open

It's been a season of firsts for Simona Halep.

In January, she reached her first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the Australian Open and later that month, she posted her first Top 10 WTA ranking. In March, she reached the Top 5 for the first time and in May, earned her first Grand Slam final appearance at the French Open.

Throw in a semifinal appearance at Wimbledon, victories at Doha and Bucharest, $3.253 million in earnings and a 36-10 record, and life is looking very good for the 23-year old Romanian. Very good, indeed.

In fact, it gets even better, On Monday, when the new WTA rankings are announced, Halep -- the defending Connecticut Open champion -- will jump over Li Na and take the No. 2 ranking in the world, just behind Serena Williams. Not too shabby when you consider that in 2009 Halep was ranked in the low 200s.

"I believe more in myself now and I believe I can be there at the top," Halep said in a conference call Tuesday with the state media. "I play more aggressive now, very close to the baseline and also my serve has improved a lot."

Last year, Halep exploded onto the tennis scene, winning six titles, including the New Haven Open at Yale, beating four-time New Haven champ Caroline Wozniacki in the semifinals and then hammering Petra Kvitova 6-2, 6-2 in straight sets in the final, making just five unforced errors.

And that new-found aggressiveness helped her advance to the fourth round of the 2013 U.S. Open -- her deepest Grand Slam run to that point -- and pushed her on to additional tournament victories at Moscow and Sofia in October.

"After the U.S. Open, I thought I could play well also in Grand Slams," she said. "Before that, I couldn't win two matches in a row at the Grand Slams."

With that mental block surpassed, Halep, who ended 2013 ranked No. 11, cracked the Top 10 early in '14 after reaching the quarterfinals at the Australian Open. At Indian Wells, Halep popped into the Top 5 and sits at No. 3 with the bump to No. 2 coming on Monday.

Ironically, the 2014 season started with a bump as Halep lost in the first round in Sydney in early January to Madison Keys. But since then, she has been almost unstoppable, winning 36 of 46 matches, two of those losses coming to then-No. 4 Maria Sharapova and one to then-No. 3 Agniesaka Radwanska.

"I got to the quarterfinals at Australia and had a lot more confidence in myself," she said. "I played very, very aggressive at Indian Wells, I had more confidence in my mind, my body and in my game that I could be there in the Top 10 and after that, the French Open final came and I was very happy to make a big step in my career. It was the best feeling and now, I feel good, I believe in myself that I can play very well in Grand Slams and I want to keep working hard and improve my game."

Halep is not playing in Montreal this week -- in fact, she hasn't played since winning in Bucharest in early July -- but will start the U.S. hardcourt season in earnest next week in Cincinnati before returning to the Connecticut Tennis Center to defend her New Haven title and then head to New York for the U.S. Open.

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"It'll be great to be back in New Haven, I really like that tournament," she said. "It was very nice for me because I played very well. I beat some solid players there and I was very happy I did that. It's very nice there and I'm looking forward to winning many matches there."

celsberry@ctpost.com http://Twitter@elsctpost