REUTERS: Simona Halep is heavily favoured to add a second French Open title to her Grand Slam cabinet, brimming with confidence on the back of a 14-match winning streak and fighting fit having skipped the U.S. hardcourt season due to COVID-19.
The Romanian world number two won in Dubai before the professional season was suspended in early March, and added claycourt titles in Prague and Rome ahead of the Paris Grand Slam, which starts on Sunday having been rescheduled from May.
Due to concerns over travelling during the pandemic, she skipped the U.S. Open, opting to stay in Europe and prepare for Roland Garros, where she won her first Slam in 2018.
The former top-ranked player feels the decision leaves her better placed, both physically and mentally, to challenge for her third Slam title overall.
"It is different (this year). It is true that I am fresher," Halep told reporters after her Rome win.
"Of course I did work hard at home but I didn't have many matches, so my body is not that used ... And with these matches (I won) here I also feel confident. So it's a better chance."
An aggressive baseliner with excellent court coverage, Halep last lost in the semi-finals of this year's Australian Open to Spaniard Garbine Muguruza.
Brightening her chances further, the women's singles field in Paris will be missing defending champion and world number one Ash Barty of Australia, who opted against travelling, and U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka, who suffered a hamstring injury in New York.
The tag of bookies' clear favourite - emphatically endorsed for Paris by Czech world number four Karolina Pliskova - has not always sat well with Halep.
Before tasting success at Roland Garros two years ago she had lost three Grand Slam finals, including in 2017 at the same venue, when Latvian Jelena Ostapenko unexpectedly came from behind against a strangely subdued Halep to take her only Slam title to date.
The Romanian is determined to put no extra pressure on herself at this year's event, which she described as "just another tournament".
"I've played really well this year with three titles already. I've played so much on clay, so I feel confident ..." she said.
"I'll just be happy to take positives from this tournament and go there smiling ... and try to win every match I play. Every match is a battle, I am ready for it."
She says a lengthy lockdown, which she spent at home in Romania, has made her mentally stronger and she feels she is more mature since the professional circuit restarted in August.
For Pliskova, who lost to Halep in the Rome final, the Romanian will certainly be the one to beat. "The way she's played... of course, she's gonna be the most favourite from the women's tournament," the Czech said.
(Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly in Mumbai; editing by John Stonestreet)