At the Citi Open, Simona Halep wins the first match after Wimbledon

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Patrick Mouratoglou, the coach Simona Halep has trusted since she was hired in April, was absent on Monday when the former world No. 1 opened play at the Citi Open.

It was Halep’s first match since her Wimbledon semi-final loss to eventual champion Elena Rybakina on July 7. It was also the Romanian’s first match on hard court since March, as well as a duel with a Spanish qualifier, 24-year-old Cristina Bucsa she had never seen.

After wasting a 5-2 lead in the second set when her energy waned and her focus wandered, third-seeded Halep channeled Mouratoglou’s voice.

“At 5-all, I used to tell myself what he actually told me when I had moments of panic during games,” Halep explained after overcoming the rocky phase to go 6-3, 7-5. “Calm down and just do what I have to do. Just focus on what I need to do and have the courage to do it – even if I sometimes miss it.”

Halep, 30, is one of three former top players who submitted their bids for a Citi Open title on Monday, hoping to use Washington’s late-summer classic to regain their hard-court form and adapt to the east coast’s heat and humidity get used to the run-up to the US Open, which begins on August 29 in New York.

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Andy Murray, the 35-year-old who was No. 1 for 41 weeks in 2016 and 2017, also chose the Citi Open for his return after a second-round loss to top-ranked 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 began when temperatures were at their highest on Monday and the sun was beating down directly on the Stadium Court at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center. After failing to convert four set points in the first set, Murray threw his racquet into the net in frustration and lost the tiebreak that decided it. After nearly three hours of hard brawling, 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 due to play her first singles match in almost a year on Monday night.

For all three former No. 1 players, who have 12 Grand Slam titles among them, the struggle to stay relevant in major tournaments is a process of continuous improvement. Tennis is evolving – and champions can’t afford to stand still while their challengers get younger, bigger, stronger and able to dish out and absorb more pace.

Sometimes that means tearing down once-reliable dashes and retooling them. In other cases, it means rethinking strategy and discarding predictable patterns.

In Halep’s case, almost every facet of her life – on and off the pitch – has changed over the past 10 months.

She got married in September. The next week, she parted ways with her longtime coach Darren Cahill, with whom she won the 2019 French Open and Wimbledon titles.

After starting a stretch without a coach, Halep announced on social media in April that she had hired Mouratoglou, best known for coaching Serena Williams, who was in the middle of an extended break from competition.

“I’m looking forward to it,” said Halep after Monday’s victory and listed the many changes in her life. “But it is not easy. That’s why I always try to be nice to myself, to give myself time to get used to everything. … I always thought to myself that I have to be more aggressive. But now with someone who really believes in it, with Patrick, it gives me more confidence that I can do it.”

Halep gushes about Mouratoglou, who has also acted as an advisor to Stefanos Tsitsipas and Coco Gauff, and credits him with reviving their passion for tennis while they worked together.

“He gives me time,” she said earlier this year. “He’s patient. He supports me in everything I do. He’s trying to understand me because I think that’s the most important thing I want from a coach – to understand me – because I’m pretty emotional most of the time.”

However, her result at the French Open – a second-round loss to unseeded Qinwen Zheng – was not what she had hoped for.

Mouratoglou quickly took the blame and posted on social media that he needed to get better. Halep rallied to his defense.

“It wasn’t his fault,” she told reporters at Wimbledon. “It was me – that I wasn’t able to do better and actually calm down when I was panicking. But it was also new to me and I wasn’t good enough.”

At 35, Andy Murray keeps fighting, driven by a love of tennis and hard work

On Monday, back on court after a four-week break from competition, Halep looked rested and fit as she took to Stadium Court in an evergreen crop top and skirt.

But she and Bucsa, 24, struggled to find reach on their groundstrokes, trading breaks of serve early on for a series of unforced errors. Bucsa interfered after conceding the first set and falling 5-2 in the second.

That’s where the voice of Mouratoglou came in, who plans to join Halep for North American hard-court swing this month at the Western & Southern Open outside of Cincinnati.

“I’m in constant contact with him,” said Halep. “He’s kind of here, but just not here. … We talk a lot about what I have to do. But now I know what I have to do. … I don’t feel lonely here.”

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