New York: Second-ranked Simona Halep expects a major challenge when she becomes Maria Sharapova's first Grand Slam opponent after a doping ban in the highest-profile first-round match at the US Open.
Just days after squandering her third chance at reaching World No 1 with a humbling loss in the Cincinnati final, the 25-year-old Romanian was on the practice court when she got the message she would face a Russian foe who is 6-0 lifetime against her.
"Of course was a little bit like, 'How is possible again? Just first round of a Grand Slam.' But I felt OK," Halep said Saturday. "I did my practice normal. I didn't have something emotional. I'm normal."
Her situation is anything but normal. Halep, a two-time French Open runner-up, launches another bid for her first Grand Slam title Monday against five-time major champion Sharapova, who served a 15-month ban after testing positive for meldonium at the 2016 Australian Open.
Sharapova has won 22 Grand Slam first-round matches in a row since last losing a major opener at the 2010 Australian Open. And she is 10-0 in US Open first-round matches.
"It's going to be a big challenge, first round of Grand Slam, to face her," Halep said. "She beat me six times. So maybe I will change this. We will see Monday.
"I just want to do my best, to try to win the match and of course to enjoy it. It's a big, big match."
Sharapova made her return in April at Stuttgart, reaching the semi-finals as a wildcard, but such invitations sparked criticism from some WTA rivals, saying she should have to work her way back without such benefits, some suggesting a life ban.
Former World No 1 Sharapova was refused a wildcard by the French Open and missed Wimbledon with a thigh injury. A forearm injury has limited her to one US Open hardcourt tuneup match.
"About wildcard, the tournament decided, so they can do anything they want. Is not my position to talk about this," Halep said.
"She's coming back. She's strong enough to come back. She has a lot of experience, and also many tournaments won so I think she's OK."
Sharapova has missed three of the past four US Opens, her last visit ending in the 2014 fourth round.
'Not thinking what Maria did'
Sharapova's doping ban is not among the things Halep will focus upon in trying to make her rival's Grand Slam comeback a brief one.
"I'm not thinking what Maria did or what Maria does and how is the situation. I'm just thinking about myself," Halep said.
"It's not going to be easy. Is just another match, another challenge, another possibility to face her and to try to win against her.
"I don't want to put pressure on myself that I'm facing Maria Sharapova. It's a normal player. She's coming back, so she played really well in the past, so she's still a good player. I have to just focus on myself."
She doesn't expect spectators to create a scene over Sharapova's doping issue.
"I don't know about the crowd. We will see Monday," Halep said. "But everyone here was very fair to me always and I had a very nice crowd. So I don't expect anything bad. I just expect a nice atmosphere."
Halep said she has improved greatly since their most recent meeting in the 2015 WTA Finals.
"I feel better and I feel that I'm ready to face her again," Halep said. "I just want to change something. Maybe I can win."
Updated Date: Aug 27, 2017 18:29 PM