Halep in search of first Grand Slam title
World No. 2 hoping to shake off injury and flu as she eyes a first Grand Slam title
World No. 2 Simona Halep's preparations for the Australian Open were hampered by a long-standing Achilles injury and now the Romanian has picked up a cold just before the year's first Grand Slam.
The 24-year-old withdrew from the Brisbane International last week because of the injury, which also affected her 2015 campaign, but she reached the semi-finals in Sydney on Friday.
The 1.68m-tall fighter's fitness was given a thorough test by Svetlana Kuznetsova in a two hour, 45-minute tussle before she exited the tournament 7-6(5), 4-6, 6-3.
Then came the sniffles.
"I'm a little bit sick, cold, yeah, with my nose," she said yesterday. "It's nothing dangerous. It's normal. From the air-conditioning."
Halep, who faces China's Zhang Shuai in the first round tomorrow, added that her Achilles was now "much better" and that she had played without pain for several days.
"I feel ready to start and hopefully to be healthy till the end," she said. "I come here without expectations. I have (played) only one tournament before this Grand Slam. Actually, I feel good. I feel confident."
After a breakthrough year in 2014, when she made her first Grand Slam final at Roland Garros and won two tournaments, Halep consolidated her rise by claiming titles at Shenzhen, Dubai and Indian Wells, raking in more than US$4.5 million ($9.2m) in prize money.
Her Achilles' heel troubled her during the season, however, and she also withdrew from the Toronto final after falling ill due to the sweltering conditions.
Halep has often slipped against lower-ranked rivals at the Grand Slams. She has failed to go past the quarter-finals in five previous attempts at Melbourne Park, but could fancy her chances this time.
She has teamed up with Australian coach Darren Cahill, who guided Lleyton Hewitt to two Grand Slam titles, and her side of the draw is relatively worry-free until the fourth round, where she could face hard-hitting American Madison Keys or former world No. 1 Ana Ivanovic.
Garbine Muguruza or two-time champion Victoria Azarenka potentially stand in her way in the semi-finals and, while there has been speculation that defending champion Serena Williams' knees may be giving her trouble, Halep believes that the American would still be tough.
"I think she (is) strong enough," when asked if she felt the American could produce her top form at Melbourne Park.
"I know how it is to be injured. It's not easy to train. You cannot be 100 per cent on court. But if you play pain free, you can come back fast (and) I think the tournament is open. Everyone has a chance to win this title."
- Wire Services.
Five other contenders
Nationality: American, Age: 34, World ranking: 1, Grand Slam titles: 21
Despite injury concerns, Williams insists she's ready to win her sixth Australian Open title.
With main rivals like Victoria Azarenka looking formidable, the world No. 1 might not have it easy this time.
Nationality: Spaniard, Age: 22, World ranking: 3, Grand Slam titles: 0
Started 2015 at what was then her career-high of world No. 21, but stormed to third by year-end, making her first Grand Slam final at Wimbledon and winning her biggest title yet in Beijing.
Nationality: Polish, Age: 26, World ranking: 4, Grand Slam titles: 0
Finished strongly last year, when she won the biggest title of her career at the WTA Finals. Has began this season by retaining her title in Shenzhen.
Nationality: Russian, Age: 28, World ranking: 5, Grand Slam titles: 5
Injury-plagued and hasn't been on court much since Wimbledon last year, when she lost to Williams in the semi-finals. Withdrew from last week's Brisbane International after hurting her forearm in practice.
Nationality: Belarusian, Age: 26, World ranking: 16, Grand Slam titles: 2
Most likely contender to upset Williams' Grand Slam dominance. After an injury-plagued two years, Azarenka stormed her way to her second Brisbane International crown last week without dropping a set - her first title since she beat Williams in Cincinnati in 2013.
PHOTOS: AFP, REUTERS, ST FILE