So after frittering away a 5-2 lead in the second set as her energy dipped and her focus strayed, the third-seeded Halep channeled Mouratoglou’s voice.
“At 5-all, I told myself what actually he was telling me when I had panic moments during the matches,” Halep explained after overcoming the rocky patch to advance, 6-3, 7-5. “Calm down and just do what I have to do. Just focus on what I have to do and be brave to do it — even if sometimes I miss.”
Halep, 30, is one of three former top-ranked players who launched their bids for a Citi Open title Monday, hoping to use Washington’s late-summer classic to reclaim their hard-court form and acclimate to the East Coast heat and humidity in the run-up to the US Open, which begins Aug. 29 in New York.
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Andy Murray, the 35-year-old who was ranked No. 1 for 41 weeks in 2016 and 2017, also chose the Citi Open for his return after a second-round loss to big-serving American John Isner at Wimbledon.
A three-time Grand Slam champion, Murray faced 23-year-old Mikael Ymer of Sweden in a first-round match that started when Monday’s temperatures were at their highest, the sun beating directly on Stadium Court at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center. After failing to convert four set points in the opening set, Murray flung his racket into the net in frustration and proceeded to lose the tiebreaker that settled it. After nearly three hours of hard slugging, the 115th-ranked Ymer pulled off a 7-6 (10-8), 4-6, 6-1 upset.
And seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams, 42, was scheduled Monday night to play her first singles match in nearly a year.
For all three former No. 1 players, who boast 12 Grand Slam titles among them, the battle to stay relevant in big tournaments is a process of continuous improvement. Tennis evolves — and champions can’t afford to stand still as their challengers get younger, taller, stronger and able to dish out and absorb more pace.
Sometimes, that means tearing down once-reliable strokes and retooling them. Other times, it means rethinking strategy and tossing out predictable patterns.
In Halep’s case, almost every facet of her life — on the court or off — has changed in the past 10 months.
She got married in September. The next week, she and longtime coach Darren Cahill, with whom she won the 2018 French Open and 2019 Wimbledon titles, parted ways.
After competing for a stretch without a coach, Halep announced on social media in April that she had hired Mouratoglou, known primarily as the coach of Serena Williams, who was in the midst of an extended break from competition.
“I’m excited about it,” Halep said after Monday’s victory, enumerating the flurry of changes in her life. “But it’s not easy. That’s why I always try to be nice to myself, to give time to get used to everything. … I always thought inside myself that I have to be more aggressive. But now with someone that really believes that, with Patrick, gives me more confidence that I’m able to do it.”
Halep has been gushing in her praise of Mouratoglou, who also served as a consultant to Stefanos Tsitsipas and Coco Gauff, crediting him with rejuvenating her passion for tennis during their collaboration.
“He gives me time,” she said earlier this year. “He’s patient. He’s supporting me in everything I do. He tries to understand me because I think this is the main thing that I want from a coach — to understand me — because I am pretty emotional most of the time.”
That said, her French Open result — a second-round loss to unseeded Qinwen Zheng — wasn’t what she had hoped for.
Mouratoglou was quick to shoulder the blame, posting on social media that he needed to be better. Halep rallied to his defense.
“It was not on him,” she told reporters at Wimbledon. “It was me — that I was not able to do better and to actually calm myself down when I panicked. But it was new for me as well, and I was not good enough.”
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On Monday, back on the court after a four-week hiatus from competition, Halep looked rested and fit as she stepped onto Stadium Court in a periwinkle crop top and skirt.
But she and Bucsa, 24, struggled to find the range on their groundstrokes and traded service breaks on a slew of unforced errors early. Bucsa dug in after conceding the first set and falling behind 5-2 in the second.
That’s when the voice of Mouratoglou, who plans to join Halep for the North American hard-court swing this month at the Western & Southern Open outside Cincinnati, came into play.
“I’m in touch with him nonstop,” Halep said. “He’s kind of here but just not here. … We talk a lot about what I have to do. But I know now what I have to do. … I don’t feel lonely here.”