NEW HAVEN — When Simona Halep was asked Sunday who her toughest opponent is, the answer came quickly and without hesitation.
"Maria Sharapova," Halep said. "She's beat me five times already."
Sharapova won't be in New Haven this week. She'll be preparing for the U.S. Open after losing in the semifinals of the Western & Southern Open. So will Serena Williams, the top player in the game, who won the title Sunday at the same tournament. But their absences shouldn't make Halep's quest for a second straight title at Yale any easier.
The Romanian faces plenty of tough competition at the Connecticut Open, including past winners Caroline Wozniacki and Petra Kvitova. This past spring, Halep, 22, lost to Sharapova in the French Open final. She is hopeful another run in New Haven might prepare her if she gets another showdown.
"It is nice to be back here because last year was an important step in my career. I won my first premier title here and played very well," Halep said. "It is one of the best tournaments in the world I think."
On Sunday, the trio of past champions spent time talking about the tournament and what keeps them coming back. And then when they were done, they dumped three buckets of ice on tournament director Anne Worcester for the ALS challenge.
"It was my first time [doing that]," Halep said with a smile. "I'm happy I'm not wet now."
Wimbledon finalist Genie Bouchard was also part of the group, which took pictures with fans outside the Stadium court and watched as Worcester got hit with the ice. The four players are all ranked in the top 12.
Halep is the No. 2 in the world, Kvitova No. 4, Bouchard No. 8 and Wozniacki No. 12.
"I feel like this tournament is pretty strong," Kvitova said. "There is a very, very good draw here."
Kvitova lost to Halep 6-2, 6-2 in the final last year and won the 2012 title. Wozniacki won four straight titles from 2008-2011.
"There are a few things that always kind of work for some players and for me it has always worked for me to play here," Wozniacki said. "I've done well here in the past and I've gone on to play well at the U.S. Open, so I would kind of like to keep that going."
She wasn't the only one to express that sentiment.
"It is important to have a week off, but for me it is good [to be playing]," Halep said.
New Haven is always on Kvitova's schedule.
"I just really like this tournament, for more it is better than practice," Kvitova said. "For me it is a really good preparation for a grand slam."
Wozniacki said she believes the timing of the Connecticut Open has always worked well for her. And that is no different this season. Despite her semifinal loss to Williams in Ohio on Saturday, Wozniacki says she's ready for another strong run.
"I'm just in a very good place right now, I'm feeling healthy, my body is good and I think definitely getting a few good wins under my belt [has helped]," Wozniacki said. "This time of year I usually play pretty well, so it is a good time of year for me."
The tournament is particularly promising because it has been a very good year for all four players.
Wozniacki won in Istanbul last month. Halep reached the French Open final. Kvitova won her second major at Wimbledon, and Bouchard made it to her first grand slam final against Kvitova.
"I'm proud of how I have played this year so far for sure," Bouchard said. "To have improved so quickly is definitely something I'm happy about, but I don't want to rest on my past successes. I definitely want to keep moving forward, and hopefully, end the year strong. The year is not over."
In first-round matches Monday, Bouchard plays Bojana Jovanovski of Serbia and Wozniacki faces Switzerland's Timea Bacsinszky. Kvitova and Halep have byes into the second round. Kvitova will play Ekaterina Makarova on Tuesday or Wednesday. Halep's opponent had yet to be determined.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun