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Simona Halep is relishing her astonishing rise up the WTA rankings

MASON, Ohio -- There's no reason Simona Halep shouldn't be smiling these days. She's playing the best tennis of her life. She's injury-free. And on Monday she became the new WTA No. 2 behind Serena Williams. But the biggest smile came when a reporter noted how much her English had improved since this time last year.

"I am happy to hear this," she said, before adding later, "I am still not where I want to be."

She may have been talking about her language skills, but the quote applies better to her tennis. Halep's industrious rise up the rankings over the last 17 months shows no signs of stopping. Last April, she was ranked No. 65 without a title to her name. Now she's won eight WTA titles and minted herself as a Slam finalist at the French Open. If she outperforms Maria Sharapova this week she'll be No. 1 in the WTA's Race to Singapore rankings, meaning she will have won more rankings points this year than anyone else on tour. 

She says she doesn't feel like the second-best player in the world -- she had to see the ranking next to her name for it to sink in -- but after everything she's done in the last 12 months, she thinks she can beat anyone.

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"Yes, I believe," she said. "I did this year. Still every match is difficult at this level but I can compete with everyone now." 

Playing an aesthetically pleasing style of tennis built around geometry and opening up the court, she's still learning to balance her intelligent game with a flair for the creative. 

"I just want to play beautiful on court," Halep said. "Sometimes too much, but it's still good to have a little bit of imagination on court."

But does she believe she can beat Serena? Halep is the No. 2 seed in Cincinnati and the two could only meet in the final. She's never beaten Williams, but the two haven't played this year. 

"My challenge is to play my best tennis," Halep said, "because always I didn't play my best because I had emotions. But now I feel prepared to play against her." Then she added, "But still I don't want to meet her in the finals if possible," and laughed.