She lost the Aussie Open final, but all is well in Simona Halep's world

MELBOURNE, Australia -- How can you not feel for Simona Halep? Three major finals, three losses. Devastating, right? This was the kind of loss that could leave so many athletes distraught and questioning their abilities, wondering if they were destined to never win on the big stage.

But nothing of the sort. Halep was understandably disappointed after her 7-6 (2), 3-6, 6-4 loss in a gripping Australian Open final to Caroline Wozniacki on Saturday, a result that also saw her lose the No. 1 ranking. But there Halep was, in the press conference, answering question after question with a smile on her face. She was optimistic and confident. She was clear. This result won't impede her quest to finally win a Grand Slam.

What a nice contrast to the way she looked after the French Open final last year, when she led Jelena Ostapenko 3-1 in the final set only to lose five straight games, the match -- and the championship. The loss hurt because Halep felt she should have won. Most people thought she was going to win. It was a tough day, and by all accounts a pretty significant setback.

On Saturday, there was no self-recrimination. She was proud of the way she fought and the way her mind told her aching body to suck it up until the end.

"I can still smile," Halep said. "It's fine. I cried, but now I'm smiling. It is just a tennis match in the end. I'm really sad I couldn't win it. I was close again, but the gas was over in the end."

In many ways, the upbeat nature of her postmatch press conference echoes just how far Halep has come in the past year. Always a fighter on court, Halep has worked hard to eliminate any negativity and self-criticism. It was so bad last spring that her coach Darren Cahill almost walked away from his job out of frustration with his pupil's comportment.

But this is a new, positive Halep. She is confident and more willing to let her aggressive game overwhelm opponents.

"This loss was different [in every way]. I played better," Halep said. "I didn't move as I wanted because I couldn't. But the game was OK, the mental part was OK. So I think I have improved a lot this tournament.

"I'm leaving Australia with many good thoughts and many positive things because what I've done these two weeks, I never did that in the past."

Considering that she almost had to retire during her second-round match when she turned her ankle, the rest of the Aussie Open was a testament to her fighting spirit. She saved three match points against Lauren Davis in the third round and two against Angelique Kerber in a semifinal. That takes gumption.

Her ankle was still bothering her Saturday. And the stifling, humid conditions throughout made it even more of a physical battle. Halep had her blood pressure taken before the first set ended and complained of dizziness and a headache. But she battled on. Halep said she actually recovered nicely in the deciding set.

In an interview with ESPN.com before the match, former No. 1 players Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova said whoever lost the final should not get too down on herself because they possess the ability to win a Grand Slam title. Perhaps Halep can look to the example of Evert, who lost her first three Grand Slam finals but went on to win 18.

"Yes, but I want to win," Halep said, again smiling. "I'm still losing, and I'm still waiting. Maybe the fourth one will be lucky."

Halep hit 40 winners, 15 more than Wozniacki, and though she made more unforced errors (47 to 25), Halep had very few regrets. Maybe she could have been more aggressive in the first-set tiebreaker, and maybe she could have gone for more at the end of the match. But as she said, her body wouldn't let her.

When she was coming forward, taking the ball early, she was the better player. Deep inside, Halep knows that is what she needs to do to finally procure the major she wants. Maybe that is why she left Melbourne Park feeling optimistic.

"So I will keep doing that," she said. "[But first], I will have a long break."