At the Citi Open, Simona Halep won her first match after Wimbledon

Suspension

Patrick Mouratoglou, coach Simona Halep who has placed complete faith in him since she appointed him in April, was not present on Monday when the former world number one opened play at the Citi Open.

It was Halep’s first match since her semi-final loss at Wimbledon to eventual champion Elena Rybakina on July 7. It was also Romania’s first match on hard ground since March, as well as a match with 24-year-old Spanish qualifier Cristina. Boxa, you’ve never encountered it.

So, having slipped from a 5-2 lead in the second set as her energy and focus waned, third seed Halep channeled Muratoglu’s vote.

“In 5-all, I told myself what he was actually telling me when I panicked during matches,” Halep explained after beating a rocky patch to lead, 6-3, 7-5. “Calm down and do what I have to do. Just focus on what I have to do and be brave to do it—even if I miss it sometimes.”

Halep, 30, is one of three former world-ranked players to bid for the Citi Open title on Monday, hoping to use the late-summer Washington classics to regain their hard-court form and acclimatize to the East Coast heat and humidity in preparation for the US Open. Starting August 29 in New York.

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Andy Murray, the 35-year-old who ranked No. 1 for 41 weeks in 2016 and 2017, also picked the City Open for his comeback after losing in the second round to big-time Wimbledon American John Isner.

Three-time Grand Slam champion Murray took on 23-year-old Mikael Ymir of Sweden in a first-round match that began when temperatures on Monday were at their peak and the sun was setting on the court of Rock Creek Park Tennis. After failing to convert four set points in the opening set, Murray tossed his racket into the net in frustration and proceeded to lose the tiebreaker. After nearly three hours of super slow, 115-seeded Ymer won 7-6 (10-8), 4-6, 6-1.

Seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams, 42, was scheduled to play her first singles match in nearly a year on Monday night.

For the three former No. 1 players, who boast 12 Grand Slam titles, the battle to stay relevant in the majors is a process of continuous improvement. Tennis is evolving – and the champions can’t stand their hold as their competitors get younger, taller, stronger, and able to take off and absorb more speed.

Sometimes, that means tearing down once reliable strokes and retooling them. Other times, it means rethinking the strategy and getting rid of predictable patterns.

In Halep’s case, nearly every aspect of her life — both on and off court — has changed in the past 10 months.

I got married in September. The following week, she and longtime coach Darren Cahill, with whom she won the 2018 French Open and 2019 Wimbledon, separated.

After competing for an extended period without a coach, Halep announced on social media in April that she had hired Muratoglu, primarily known as Serena Williams’ coach, who was in the midst of an extended break from competition.

“I’m excited about it,” Halep said after Monday’s win, listing the streak of changes in her life. But this is not easy. That’s why I always try to be kind to myself, to give time to get used to everything. …I was always thinking in my heart that I should be more aggressive. But now with someone who really believes in that, with Patrick, it gives me more confidence that I can do it.”

Halep was gushing in her praises of Muratoglu, who also served as a consultant to Stefanos Tsitsipas and Koko Goff, crediting him with renewing her passion for tennis during their collaboration.

“It gives me time,” she said earlier this year. “He’s sick. He supports me in everything I do. He tries to understand me because I think that’s the main thing I want from the coach – to understand me – because I’m so emotional most of the time.”

However, the result of the French Open – a second-round loss to unseeded Chenwen Cheng – was not what she had hoped.

Muratoglu was quick to take the blame, posting on social media that he needed to be better. Halep rushed to his defense.

“It wasn’t it,” she told reporters at Wimbledon. “It was me—that I couldn’t do a better job and calm myself down when I panicked. But it was new to me too, and I wasn’t good enough.”

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On Monday, Halep returned to the field after a four-week hiatus from competing, looking relaxed and fit as she stepped onto the field of play in a cropped top and skirt.

But she and Buxa, 24, struggled to find the range on their primary hits and service breaks traded on a slew of non-force misses early on. Boxa rolled into the net after conceding the first set and lost 5-2 in the second.

That’s when the voice of Muratoglu, who plans to join Halep on the North American hard court swing this month at the Western and South African Open outside Cincinnati, made his mark.

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