Former world number one Simona Halep feels like she has “the fire back” as she enjoyed a winning debut with her new coach Patrick Mouratoglou, easing to a 6-2, 6-3 success over China’s Zhang Shuai in Madrid on Thursday.
The two-time Grand Slam champion was on the verge of retirement after an injury-plagued 2021 season and had doubts she would be able to recapture the form that saw her spend 64 weeks at the summit of the rankings.
Her decision to team up with Mouratoglou, the longtime coach of Serena Williams, after initially intending to spend some time alone on tour has helped her find the spark she was missing and Halep is feeling motivated ahead of her blockbuster second-round clash with world number two Paula Badosa.
Halep has reached the final a tournament-record four times in Madrid, lifting the trophy in 2016 and 2017.
The 30-year-old, currently ranked 21 in the world, scooped the first set against Zhang in 29 minutes and recovered from an early break in the second en route to a 68-minute win.
Competing for the first time since her Indian Wells semi-final exit six weeks ago, Halep showcased a more aggressive game on the clay courts of the Caja Magica and says things have been going great with her French coach so far.
“I used to be a little bit more negative in the past, I improved, but now it’s like, wow, even more,” said Halep of Mouratoglou.
“I can open up to him super easy, I can actually say everything I feel which is helping me because he knows how to take it and how to respond to my problems or my doubts.
“And he has helped me a lot with my doubts because before meeting him I had a lot of doubts that I cannot play at a high level again and probably I was thinking about stopping at one point.
“But now I’m starting to get it back, I have the fire back, and I love to be on court.”
Badosa cruises through
Later on centre court, Badosa delighted the home crowd with a smooth 6-3, 6-0 rout of in-form Russian Veronika Kudermetova, who was a finalist in Istanbul last Sunday.
Badosa, who needed a wildcard last year to compete in Madrid, arrived to the Spanish capital this week at a career-high ranking of second in the world, thanks to an impressive 12 months that catapulted her to the upper echelons of the women’s tour.
The 24-year-old Catalonian had told reporters ahead of the tournament that contesting a home event as the highest-ranked player in the draw was “stressful”, but Badosa navigated a tricky opening round opponent in style, needing just 64 minutes to dismiss the 25th-ranked Kudermetova.
Looking ahead to her showdown with Halep, Badosa said: “I think it’s going to be interesting match, because it’s going to be quite a clay-court match, very tactical, and I’m really looking forward to that.
“Of course she’s a great champion. So maybe I’m the favourite or no, I will try to give my best, because for sure she will push me to the limits.”
American Amanda Anisimova ended the title defence of world number four Aryna Sabalenka in just under two hours, defeating the Belarusian 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 to extend her dominance over her to a perfect 4-0 head-to-head record.
Meanwhile, Tunisian eighth seed Ons Jabeur fired 33 winners in her 7-6(11/9), 6-1 victory over Italian Jasmine Paolini to book a second-round date with French veteran Alize Cornet or Russian qualifier Varvara Gracheva.
Ex-world number one Victoria Azarenka battled past Switzerland’s Viktorija Golubic 7-6 (7/5), 6-3 and next takes on last year’s Roland Garros semi-finalist Tamara Zidansek of Slovenia.