By Steve Gorten
KEY BISCAYNE – Simona Halep, the No. 3 ranked women’s tennis player in the world, says she’s “used to being at the top now” because she has spent more than a year as part of that exclusive group.
The 23-year-old Romanian, who enters the 2015 Miami Open as arguably the hottest WTA player this year with three titles, noted Monday that she feels she can beat any opponent at any tournament. But it wasn’t that long ago that she was outside looking in, on the tour’s stars.
“Two years ago, when I heard I can be a rising star, it was very good for my confidence,” Halep said. “People were believing in me. That made me stronger on the court.”
Halep and 21-year-old Canadian Eugenie Bouchard, now ranked No. 7, are among the WTA’s best young players. Bouchard made her major climb last year, moving from No. 32 at the start of the 2014 season to a career-high No. 5 in late October. Along the way, she reached the semifinals of the Australian Open and French Open, and the final at Wimbledon.
This year, several up-and-coming players have positioned themselves as potential future stars, including the Czech Republic’s Karolina Pliskova (No. 14), USA’s Madison Keys (No. 18), Spain’s Garbine Muguruza (No. 19), France’s Caroline Garcia (No. 25) and Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic (No. 34). All are seeded at this year’s Miami Open except for Bencic.
Caroline Wozniacki, the world’s No. 5 player, said the field of players capable of winning tournament titles has expanded.
“For the last few years, it’s been very much like that,” Wozniacki said. “It’s just the depth of the game, which is really strong. There’s so many great players nowadays. It’s great for tennis that it’s going in that direction.”
At the same time, she noted, “it gets tougher and tougher for the youngsters to break through.”
Wozniacki said she’s been impressed by two in particular – 21-year-old Garcia and 23-year-old Pliskova. Pliskova, one of three WTA players to have already won 20 matches this year, reached the final in Dubai and Sydney, and the semifinals at Antwerp.
“She’s probably the one who has impressed me the most,” Wozniacki said. “She has a big serve, big shots. It looks effortless. She’s tall [6-foot-1]. So even though she doesn’t move the best, she gets to a lot of balls because she has good reach. She’s the one I think has improved the most over the last year or so.”
World No. 8 Agnieszka Radwanska added: “Last year was the year we could really see a lot of young up-and-coming players. Muguruza is a really good player who we’re going to see more often in the future. Madison Keys as well. There are a couple that can really do a lot in women’s tennis.”
Muguruza, 21, broke into the top-20 in the WTA rankings following a 2014 season in which she won her first WTA title at Hobart, was runner-up at Florianopolis, a semifinalist at Marrakech, Tokyo and Sofia, and a quarterfinalist in five other tournaments.
Keys, 20, from nearby Boca Raton, Fla., and coached by retired American great Lindsay Davenport, is the highest ranked American after Williams sisters Serena and Venus.
“I saw her at age 12 – everybody that saw her at that point thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, there’s so much raw power, that if she could just control it and harness it, she’s going to be a great player,” Chrissie Evert said on an ESPN analysts conference call earlier this month. “She’s got it all. She has natural ease and power in her shots.”
Keys won her first WTA title last year at Eastbourne and reached the semifinals in Sydney and Strasbourg. So far this year, she has vaulted 14 spots in the rankings, largely because of her performance at the Australian Open. Keys beat world No. 4 Petra Kvitova in the round of 32 and Venus Williams in the quarterfinals before losing to Serena Williams in the semifinals.
Entering the Miami Open, Halep is behind only Serena Williams and No. 2 Maria Sharapova. She’s the first player to win three WTA titles in 2015 – Shenzhen, Dubai and Indian Wells – and now is poised to advance past the third round of the Miami Open for the first time.
Asked if she feels it’s her time to become the world’s top-ranked player, Halep said Monday, “It’s tough to think this when Serena is still playing. My dream is to win a grand slam. I don’t know if it’s going to happen in this life. But I just want to work hard every day to reach that title.”