Halep hobbled, but untroubled

  • Linda Pearce
  • Ben Solomon

World No.1 Simona Halep is optimistic her latest ankle scare will not derail her quest for a maiden Grand Slam title, the Romanian having survived a first round fright of another kind from free-wheeling Australian wildcard Destanee Aiava that drew comparisons with a powerful young Serena Williams.

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Halep was forced to save two set points before winning 7-6(5) 6-1 in one hour, 51 minutes at Rod Laver Arena on Tuesday afternoon. Both players required medical timeouts: Aiava, who said she felt so anxious when ahead 5-2 that she started to “hyperventilate a little”; Halep, after twisting her left ankle as she reached for a wide forehand early in set two.

The 26-year-old limped into her media conference with suspected ligament damage, but said she was expecting to play her second round – a rematch of the 2014 Wimbledon semifinal – against Eugenie Bouchard as scheduled.

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“I feel that is nothing broken, but still the pain was big. I have to see with the doctors,’’ said Halep. “I had before last year, about five (times), this ankle during the years. So my ankles are not good. That's why I tape all the time.’’

There were two other reasons for the top seed to worry: the early threat posed by 17-year-old Aiava, and the prospect of a third consecutive first-round exit from Melbourne Park that the dual French Open finalist was determined to avoid.

"I think she played great. She played without not thinking but without emotions,'' Halep said of Aiava. “She was not afraid of anything, so she was hitting very strong and very well. I was actually stressed a little bit because two years in a row I lost first round, so I didn't want to do the third one.

“But I think she's very good player and very talented, very powerful. She's going to be good in the future. But I'm really happy that I could win the first round. Was really important.

“I think the experience help me today, and also the way I fought, I think I was there for every point, and I didn't give up at all during the match. Also when I was 5-2 down, I said that I will not lose the match. I just have to stay there. If she is going to beat me, she's better, and that's it. But I stayed there.’’

Having weathered the barrage of Aiava groundstrokes off both wings, Halep was generous in her praise of her young opponent.

Unforced errors
22 Simona Halep
51 Destanee Aiava

“She’s very talented, and she’s powerful, so I think she’s going to be very good in the future,’’ said Halep, while noting similarities in style and appearance to the absent younger Williams.

Less than a week after a tired and emotional Aiava admitted she was struggling to cope with “the whole tennis thing” and in need of a break from the sport, the Melbourne teen was happy to accept the praise, and appreciated the compliment.

“The fact that she referenced me to Serena gives me a lot of confidence in myself,’’ Aiava said.

“I feel honoured, as well, especially coming from her, being the best player in the world right now.” 

Aiava belted 25 winners to 20, but made 51 unforced errors to 22 in a glimpse of what is possible, but also an indication of how raw her ability and how early in her career such a big match has come.

“I'm going to take a lot of confidence out of that match. Just being able to push her to 7-6, being 5-2 up, I feel great about myself, how I played,” she said. 

“I actually really enjoyed it. The first game I may have been a little bit nervous, but then after that I just relaxed a lot. I loved every minute of it, playing in front of that many people, the big stage. I'm hoping to play a lot more on that court.’’

Consider the respective standings: world No.1 v No.193. WTA singles titles: 16 to nil. Prizemoney: US$20 million to $146,000. A 31st main draw in a major for one, and a second for the other. But, for different reasons, plenty to like about the performances of both.