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Simona Halep calls Serena Williams still the world's best player

Top-seeded Simona Halep knew her round-of-16 match was scheduled to be the first played Tuesday morning at the BNP Paribas Open, and an early wakeup call would usually dictate an early bedtime the night before. Halep instead made an intriguing choice that could bring her more benefits than she would have gained from staring at the walls of yet another hotel room in another city somewhere in the world.

Halep decided to spend a portion of Monday night watching Serena and Venus Williams’ dramatic third-round match at Stadium 1, drawn by her respect for the trailblazing sisters from Compton and by her desire to pick up what she can from them. Not so much their groundstrokes, but the values that ground them and have made them so successful for so long.

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Halep was especially awed by Serena’s return to competitive tennis at 36 after giving birth to a daughter. Halep said Serena, a 23-time Grand Slam event singles champion, should have been the No. 1 seed in this event “because she left as No. 1 in the world. … And to give birth, it's the best thing in the world. It's more than a sport.”

The rules don’t allow for that, but Serena’s status as an unseeded player didn’t diminish her in Halep’s estimation.

“I'm the world No. 1 in this moment,” Halep said, “but I just watched the best player in the world.”

Halep didn’t have to apply many of the lessons she learned from the Williams sisters in her match Tuesday, a 7-5, 6-1 victory over Qiang Wang that launched Halep into the quarterfinals. Halep initially had difficulty finding her rhythm but the 26-year-old Romanian finally found a comfortable pace that enabled her to move her opponent around and breeze to the finish. She will next face an old junior-level foe, Petra Martic of Croatia, who advanced with a 6-3, 7-6 (4) triumph over Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic.

Halep didn’t remember having faced Martic at the professional level but records say they’ve met twice, with Martic winning a 2011 hard-court match in three sets and Halep beating her in straight sets in 2015, also on a hard court. In this tournament, Martic has gained attention for her three-set upset of French Open champion and No. 6 seed Jelena Ostapenko in the third round.

“She's serving strong and the kick is going to be tough. Also, the forehand, she has a big forehand. She's coming to the net,” said Halep, who has lost one set in getting this far, in the round of 32 against American Caroline Dolehide. “So I know a little bit how she's playing, but I will focus on myself like always. I just want to have the plan what I have to do. I will talk with my coach [Darren Cahill] tomorrow, and that's it. Nothing else. Nothing special.”

Maybe in that round or the round after that or in the next tournament Halep will be able to apply what she learned from watching Venus prevail over a rusty but still fiery Serena in straight sets Monday. The match made a deep impression on Halep, who is spending her 18th and 19th weeks as world No. 1 but has yet to win a Slam. She is 17-1 this year but those victories don’t mean as much as the loss, to Caroline Wozniacki in the Australian Open final, Halep’s third runner-up finish in her quest for that elusive first Slam title.

“I know that I lost the final and [it] was really tough," she said.

That's part of what drives her to become a better player and where her habit of observing the Williams sisters comes in.

“It's always nice to watch them. I love the way that they are motivated and they are still playing at this age, Serena with the kid. So it's a great thing what they do for sport, and it's great that tennis has them,” Halep said before Venus joined her in the quarterfinals with a 7-6 (6), 6-4 victory over Anastasija Sevastova on Tuesday afternoon. “It was really fun to come out here and watch the game. And also, you know, I have many things to learn from them. That's why I'm trying just to go in to watch every time I can.”

She looks more at their mind-set and mental toughness than specific strategy, although that’s part of what Halep has identified as traits that continue to set the sisters apart.

“Also the motivation, the game, the way that they are hitting in important moments, the way they stay there and they are focused for every ball,” Halep said. “So everything in general, I have things to learn.”

She has already learned important lessons about respect and never passing up a chance to learn. Good things to know in tennis, and in life.

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