Halep digs deep to avoid deja vu

  • Alex Sharp

A refreshed world No.1 Simona Halep withstood the explosive power of Kaia Kanepi to complete a 6-7(2) 6-4 6-2 comeback to launch into the Australian Open 2019 second round on Tuesday night.

The 2018 Melbourne Park runner-up banished the demons of a first-round defeat by the Estonian at last year’s US Open to snap a five-match losing streak at Margaret Court Arena.

“I don’t want to remember that match,” joked Halep, referring to Kanepi’s 6-2 6-4 win in New York last year.

“That was a tough match to take. I knew what I had to do against her, I knew she’s a very tough opponent. I had to be so strong on the legs, to believe that I could win. I didn't give up, which was really important tonight. I think that's why I could win the match.

“I can take a lot of confidence because it’s not easy facing Kaia. It was a great match, I think both of us played really well for first round. It was a tough draw, but for sure, it's really important for me coming not very confident into this tournament.

“Since Cincinnati (August), I didn't win a match. It's a nice start, a nice day for me.”

Halep showed plenty of grit to repel Kanepi's booming groundstrokes

Halep struck a piercing backhand winner in the opening game to set the tone, before Kanepi eventually chalked up a five-minute opening hold. It was a warning sign, with the world No.1 teasing the errors from the heavy-hitting 33-year-old to edge 2-1 ahead.

However, like in the Flushing Meadows victory, Kanepi was far from deterred, and continued to clobber the ball with brutal force. A sledgehammer inside-out forehand winner provided the break back.

The top seed was becoming increasingly frustrated at being unable to interrupt the world No.71’s devastating rhythm. Halep was able to fend off two set points serving at 5-6 with some clutch deliveries and remarkable counter-punching.

A tie-break was the reward, but Kanepi, playing her first match since the US Open, unleashed a barrage of scorching shots to wrestle away the initiative. A winner off each groundstroke wing punched 5-1 onto the scoreboard, and a deft pick-up volley completed a top-draw tie-break and captivating set.

Halep looked in severe trouble when Kanepi’s fierce forehand helped claim an early 2-1 break in set two. The top seed didn’t back down, and capitalised upon a loose game from the Estonian to draw level.

The world No.1 was ramping up the pressure, but a break point at 4-3 was wiped out by a booming Kanepi ace. Eventually, the Romanian’s patience and persistence paid dividends.

Three set points at 5-4 were dismissed when Kanepi cut an acute volley and Halep missed a brace of routine returns. However, the fourth chance was taken as Kanepi catapulted a backhand long past the baseline to send the match into a decider.

“It was a big challenge,” admitted Halep, referring to her opponent’s firepower. “First round of Grand Slam is not easy. Losing against her in US Open, so it was a bit of pressure on my shoulders.

“I had nothing to lose. I know that she's hitting the ball very strong, is going to take time to get the leading in the match.”

The duo were locked on serve until 3-2 in the final set. Kanepi accelerated to 40-0, but Halep kept probing and snatched away five successive points to steal the pivotal break en route to a memorable victory.

Unforced errors
19 Simona Halep
62 Kaia Kanepi

The world No.1 didn’t compete in a warm-up event and spent the holidays training hard and relishing a “normal life” with friends and family.

“I just took the risk coming late here, no regrets, staying home more, because I wanted. I felt like I need,” added the rejuvenated 27-year-old, who rested up in the off-season after a lower back injury curtailed her 2018 campaign. “I said that no expectations coming here. Just giving my best to find the rhythm, which tonight was a great level of tennis. I feel like I am one step forward.”

On Thursday, the top seed will tackle Sofia Kenin in the second round. The recent Hobart International champion navigated past qualifier Veronika Kudermetova with a 6-3 3-6 7-5 victory on Court 12.

“I'm not putting pressure on myself any more with the results, but I'm still motivated. I feel better, what it comes now, it's a bonus."