What we learned: Halep steps it up

 - Kate Battersby

In big leap forward, defending champion crushes Tsurenko to reach last 16.

Simona Halep third round Roland Garros 2019©Philippe Montigny / FFT

After a torrid start to the defence of her 2018 crown, Simona Halep is through to the last 16 for the fourth straight year in Paris.

On Court Philippe-Chatrier, she crushed the No.27 seed Lesia Tsurenko 6-2, 6-1. Despite 55-minute match time and the overwhelming scoreline, this match was not without its own complexities, and Halep's handling of them will have done her a world of good after successive three-setters in her two opening rounds.

Here's what we learned in the course of Halep's victory.

She is in the last 16…

… which is significant, because it is as far as Halep has progressed in any Grand Slam since her Roland-Garros triumph.

The stat most often quoted in connection with her challenge here is that no woman has successfully defended a Grand Slam crown since Serena Williams in 2016, and none at Roland-Garros since Justine Henin in 2007 - but it's a case of one step at a time for the Romanian.

It is reasonable to hope for further progress here given that clay is her favourite surface and this is her most successful Grand Slam - and most especially because she cannot face a top-10 player before the semi-finals.

This was her simplest match to date

Both Alja Tomljanovic and Magda Linette gave Halep a scare, pushing the Romanian the distance in her first and second round matches.

Everything was much smoother in this third round match against the No.27 seed, as the contest occupied well under an hour of Halep’s time.

By comparison she needed 95 minutes against the Australian world No.47, while Poland’s Magda Linette belied her No.87 ranking by detaining Halep for fully two hours and 11 minutes.

Losing her serve was not a critical problem

Although once again Halep’s delivery was not impregnable here, she won far more receiving points than previously, upping her yield from 52% in each of her opening two rounds to 72% here.

“I was not worried when my serve was broken, because losing my serve is happening often,” shrugged the Romanian. “I'm very confident on my return, so I didn't have in my head something negative. I just looked forward for the next point.”

She’s taking her chances

Halep wasn’t short of opportunity against Linette, but could convert only 8 of 17 break points. She upped that to an 80% conversion rate against Tsurenko.

“I think today was a better match,” said Halep. “I played better, and I felt better on court.”

This was a confidence boost

Some might be startled to hear that Halep felt actively nervous before facing Tsurenko, given that the Ukrainian has taken just one set away from her in six previous Tour-level meetings. But that’s what a pair of three-setters to open your title defence can do to a player's confidence, even - or especially - when that player is the defending champion.

“Before the match, I was really nervous,” confessed Halep openly. “I have to admit big emotions, but it's normal. I'm here again. I'm feeling good, and I have expectations for myself to play good tennis. But after few games, I was free emotions, and I could focus on the game. I think I managed very well the atmosphere before the match and the feelings that I had, and I played a good match.”

She’s still here

When it comes to essential weapons in the competitive armoury, quiet contentment is not one frequently associated with the sporting elite, who by necessity tend to be restlessly hungry for ever more success.

Halep’s victory here last year granted her a serene fulfilment which she does not disguise. Her declared competitive focus for 2019 was all about Romania capturing the Fed Cup – a dream that died with France’s thrilling semi-final victory over the hot favourites last month.

But sport’s stories often unfold in ways few foresee. The defending champion is in the fourth round for the fourth straight year, with her section of the draw opening up. So many pre-tournament favourites are already out of the race, but Halep is still here.