By John O'Brien
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Simona Halep believes this year's French Open victory has helped justify her position as the women's world number one, with the Romanian saying she was now playing pressure-free tennis and motivated to add more Grand Slam titles to her resume.
Speaking to a small gathering of reporters in a phone interview on Friday, the 26-year-old also earmarked U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka as a huge prospect for the future after the Japanese player made her major breakthrough in New York.
"My dream was to become number one and I managed that last year and then my goal was to win a Grand Slam because some consider that a sign of being a true number one," Halep, who has topped the rankings for 46 weeks in total, explained.
"So my motivation was to win a major after I reached the top of the rankings and now I feel relaxed after achieving both. I am still motivated to win every match and now the pressure feels off, I can just feel the pleasure of playing."
Halep knows all too well the pain of losing a Grand Slam final after suffering three failures in as many title matches before she rallied past American Sloane Stephens in Paris to prevail 3-6 6-4 6-1 on her favourite clay surface in June.
The mental and physical exertion of that triumph seemed to take a toll on the base-liner midway through the season but Halep believes her form in North America indicated she was close to playing her best tennis.
"It wasn't a huge disaster after I won the French Open. I won in Canada and reached the final in Cincinnati in consecutive weeks," she said.
"That meant a lot to me and gave me confidence to believe my level is still there, but in the Grand Slams... at Wimbledon I was really tired and emotional, and grass is always difficult for me.
"I did have a match point in the third round (loss to Hsieh Su-wei) and Kaia Kanepi just played really well at the U.S. Open and I just couldn't put it together to win the match or make it closer," she added of her first round loss in New York.
"I feel my form is really good now but you never know, we'll see... I am just trying to stay focused and do my best."
Osaka became Japan's first ever Grand Slam champion with her impressive win over Serena Williams in a U.S. Open final marred by accusations of sexism towards the umpire by the American after she was warned three times for various infringements.
Halep steered clear of commenting directly about the second set incidents but felt that women and men were generally treated equally by officials on the tennis court.
"I don't really see a difference between men's and women's tennis," Halep added.
"I don't really want to comment on this (the U.S. Open final) but everyone gets the same thing. I have been fined for smashing my racket. The umpires respect the rules and I don't really have much to add as it feels the same for me."
Despite being just 20-year-old, Osaka managed to stay calm enough to complete a 6-2 6-4 victory over the 23-times Grand Slam champion, a performance that Halep believed made the Japanese player a big threat on the circuit.
"Osaka just won a Grand Slam. She's a very good player, she's very young and very powerful, has a great future ahead and will definitely be strong at the WTA Finals," Halep added of the elite eight-woman event taking place in Singapore next month.
Halep has already qualified for the season-ending tournament which will leave Singapore for Shenzhen in 2019 after a five-year run in Southeast Asia, with the Romanian hoping to at least reach the semi-finals after three straight group stage exits.
"The WTA Finals are really tough as they come right at the end of the season and you need to put all of your energy and everything together to play well," said Halep, who lost in the final of the event on her first appearance in 2014.
"I haven't managed to do that in the last three years, so my goal is to just get out of the group stage and into the semi-finals. But I know this will be difficult."
(Reporting by John O'Brien; editing by Sudipto Ganguly)