MELBOURNE, Australia — Before the sneezing and sniffling set in, the world’s No. 2-ranked women’s tennis player listed her goals for the year.
Top priority: “Just to stay healthy,” Simona Halep said without hesitating.
Almost as an afterthought, the rising 24-year-old Romanian who was a finalist at the 2014 French Open added that her biggest goal was “to win a Grand Slam.”As the 2016 Grand Slam season kicks off Monday at the Australian Open, Halep is hardly alone in her quest to stay off the injured list and win a major. Most of the top 10-ranked women’s players started the year with injuries or illness that forced them to retire or withdraw from tournaments in the first weeks of the season.
They include: No. 1 Serena Williams (Hopman Cup/left knee), No. 2 Halep (Brisbane/left ankle), No. 3 Garbine Muguruza (Brisbane/ left foot), No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska (Sydney/leg injury), No. 5 Maria Sharapova (Brisbane/ left forearm), and No. 6 Petra Kvitova (Sydney/ stomach virus).
“I think tennis is a sport that really beats your body,” Williams, a six-time Australian Open winner, said at her pre-tournament news conference on the weekend. “You start at such a young age, train for so many years. You’re so consistent with that training for hours and hours a day. Then you do physical training… a lot goes into tennis.”
The 21-time Grand Slam winner doesn’t like to dwell on weaknesses and did not want to discuss the inflammation in her left knee that forced her to withdraw from her season-opener at the Hopman Cup.
“It’s actually really fine. I don’t have any inflammation anymore,” Williams said. Asked if she might need surgery, she added, “I’m totally – I don’t think I would need surgery at all.”
Williams starts her tough road to another title on Monday with an opener against Camila Giorgi, the highest ranked of the unseeded players in the women’s draw. Williams may have to face former No. 1-ranked Caroline Wozniacki in the fourth round and No. 5-ranked Maria Sharapova in a quarterfinal match that would feature last year’s finalists.
Sharapova enters with her own injury concerns after withdrawing as defending champion from the Brisbane International because of soreness in her left forearm.
But the five-time Grand Slam winner says she is now “feeling really good,” despite the lack of a warm-up tournament.
“I might be rusty, make a few more unforced errors than I would like but I’m ready to go,” Sharapova said.
Halep and Muguruza are on the other half of the draw and start Tuesday, along with two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka – who is healthy, uninjured and confident after winning her first title since 2013 at the Brisbane International last week.
“I feel good. Feeling excited,” said Azarenka, whose dominant run in Brisbane puts her on the shortlist to win in Melbourne.
Halep was less exuberant but described herself as having been pain-free in the past few days.
“I’m much better. I’m OK. I can say I feel good now,” Halep said Sunday. “I played many days without pain. So I feel ready to start and hopefully to be healthy till the end.”
She spoke with a raspy voice, but said that was the least of her concerns.
“I’m a little bit sick, with a cold, yeah, with my nose. It’s nothing dangerous,” she said, attributing her sniffles to air-conditioning in Melbourne where the weather is famously variable and in the past week has shot up to 43 degrees Celsius (109 degrees Fahrenheit) and dropped to 13 (55).
As the English speaking media filed out and Romanian reporters stayed behind, she joked, “Now I can relax.” She sneezed and then reached for a tissue.