Halep takes the hard road, again

  • Michael Beattie

Simona Halep earned her spot in the third round of Australian Open 2019 the hard way, battling back from a break down in the final set to fend off American 20-year-old Sofia Kenin for a 6-3 6-7(5) 6-4 win on Thursday. 

What began as a cakewalk soon became a dogfight for the world No.1, who will face Venus Williams for a place in the fourth round. Kenin recovered from an error-strewn start to go toe-to-toe with Halep, battling back from a break down in the second set to force a tense decider that drew the best from both players.

“I’ve no idea how I won tonight,” said Halep, who claimed the last four games of the match from 2-4 down to seal the win, despite feeling some pain in her leg midway through the match.

“It’s so tough to explain what happened on court, but it was a very tough one against an amazing player. It was really difficult to stay there for every ball, to run so much. I got a little bit injured in the second set but I just fought, because I wanted to win and to come back here. Hopefully in the next round, I’ll play better and make a better match.”

Kenin arrived at Melbourne Park fresh from winning her maiden WTA title in Hobart and earned her first Australian Open match win the hard way, seeing off Veronika Kudermetova in three sets and over two hours. Indeed, her first-round match was just six minutes short of Halep’s two-hour, 12-minute opening win over Kaia Kanepi – both eclipsed by Thursday’s two-hour, 31-minute contest that see-sawed to the very end.

Back at Rod Laver Arena for the first time since last year’s final – with the roof closed after an earlier downpour – Halep proved a class apart when it mattered against Kenin, bringing the American’s six-match streak on Australian soil to an end. 

The world No.1 broke in the opening game and never looked back. While Kenin kept things entertaining, Halep always seemed a step ahead in the rallies, where her trademark defensive excellence was backed up by a string of winners. 

She was helped in part by the 20-year-old’s decision-making, time and again choosing the wrong option after working herself into promising positions – most notably having pulled Halep beyond the tramlines with an angled forehand, only to play the ball back at her scrambling opponent with the rest of the court at her mercy.

As her frustrations grew, Kenin began pulling the trigger on shots that were not there for the taking and Halep broke once more to seal the opener, the second in a five-game surge that the American finally halted to trail 3-1 in the second. 

And then, just when it seemed the contest was a formality, the world No.37 promptly broke back, skidding into a sumptuous backhand winner on break point. With that Kenin raised her game, pulling Halep from corner to corner with some fine angled drives to keep the set on serve until the tiebreak.

While Kenin’s father Alex was living and dying with each passing point, the tension was equally palpable in the Halep camp – among them, Simona’s mother Tania – as the top seed looked for support. 

She was doing her best to cling on as her young opponent dictated for the first time in the match, recovering an early mini-break, but when she shovelled a backhand long on set point the match was back in the balance, on both the scoreboard and the court.

Halep left the court before the third and redoubled her efforts on her return, subjecting Kenin’s opening service game to the sternest of examinations. The clock ticked past 10 minutes before the American escaped, trading backhand winners to repeat the feat in the fifth game and stay in front 2-3.

Then it got seriously interesting. Having been in control of her service games, Halep suddenly slumped to break point down in the next game, saving the first with an ace. On the second, however, she tried to break up a backhand cross-court exchange with a drive down the line that landed just long.

33 Simona Halep
32 Sofia Kenin

A hold for 5-2 would have surely sealed Halep’s fate, but Kenin’s first meaningful lead of the match lasted a mere six points. The top seed broke back, then broke again as Kenin sprayed a wild backhand long and wide, her form letting her down when she needed it most.

In contrast to all that had come before, Halep served out the match comfortably, sealing victory on her second match point with a service winner before offering up a prayer, a kiss, and a relieved smile.

“I have this inside myself,” Halep said of her fighting spirit, on display already in another Australian Open campaign. “In previous years I gave up a lot during the matches. Now I have maybe one, two years that I changed that. That's why, maybe, I'm where I am now.

“I like to fight till the end and to play with no regrets. After the matches, if I don't give up, I feel happy, even if I lose the match. So everything I have in my mind is just to stay there for every point and to play it 100 per cent.”