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Halep comfortably clears first hurdle

  • Ravi Ubha

Simona Halep reached the final of the Australian Open in 2018 and the semifinals last season, but don’t let that fool you. Routine openers at Melbourne Park have evaded the popular Romanian in recent years. 

After first-round losses in 2016 and 2017, Halep trailed Australian wildcard Destanee Aiava 5-2 in the first set in 2018 and faced a pair of set points. 

A year later, Kaia Kanepi — a familiar foe at majors — led Halep by a set and break and in 2020, Jennifer Brady held three set points on the Constanta native in the first set. 

To her relief on Monday at Australian Open 2021, the two-time Grand Slam champion avoided any such drama by sweeping past another Australian wildcard, Lizette Cabrera, 6-2 6-1 in 59 minutes to start the night session at Rod Laver Arena. 

Halep seemed to be moving freely, after she said a back injury surfaced in a 6-2 6-1 loss to Ekaterina Alexandrova in last week’s quarterfinals of the Gippsland Trophy at the same venue. 

Halep never gave the world No.140 any time to settle, dropping a mere two points in the first three games. Cabrera mirrors Halep’s stature and baseline game but routinely came out second-best, much to the chagrin of her family watching in the stands. 

That included on a 19-shot rally at 4-1, 15-0, when Halep’s drop shot prompted Cabrera to send her forehand reply wide. A fist pump ensued. 

Cabrera saved a set point at 1-5 but it did little to derail Halep, who then held to love to seal the first set. 

Halep was happy to avoid the drama that often goes with her opening-round assignments

Halep broke to begin the second set, then unleashed a potent serve to save one of two break points in the next game. 

Cabrera attempted her own drop shot at 0-2, yet Halep didn’t miss with her forehand to make it 3-0. 

The momentum failed to shift, and Cabrera lost for the sixth time in six Grand Slam first rounds. Unfortunately for the 23-year-old, she lacks the punch of Aiava, Kanepi and Brady but as Halep acknowledged, she is still young. 

Cabrera attempted to hit through Halep, but her tally of seven winners and 28 unforced errors wasn’t what she hoped for. 

Still, she let out a big smile when shaking hands with Halep, who meets another Australian next – and one much more established – in Ajla Tomljanovic. 

Halep leads Tomljanovic 3-0 in their head-to-head meetings, but all three have been close.

“I like to be here, so I like to play Australians,” laughed Halep. 

“I feel good. My body is fit. It’s always difficult to play a big hitter. So I have to be strong on my legs, focus on myself and give my best.

"I expect a tough match because I played against her before and I know how it's gonna be. She's a good opponent, a good player, and I will focus just on myself like I do every time, but I'm ready for a good battle."