Melbourne: World No. 1 Simona Halep had to come from 5-2 and a set point down against Australian teenager Destanee Aiava to win a dramatic first-round match at the Australian Open on Tuesday.
Both the Romanian and her 17-year-old wild-card opponent needed on-court medical attention before top seed Halep ran out a battling 7-6, 6-1 winner in an hour and 51 minutes.
The top seed had fallen at the first hurdle in the past two years at Melbourne Park and another shock was beckoning when the big-hitting Australian took a 5-2 lead in the first set buoyed by rowdy home supporters.
Maria Sharapova (left) defeated Germany’s Tatjana Maria, 6-1, 6-4 yesterday, but two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova (right) crashed out 6-3, 4-6, 10-8 to Andrea Petkovic. (AP & AFP)
“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,” admitted Halep.
“She’s going to be good in the future. But I’m really happy that I could win the first round. Was really important,” added Halep.
But the fearless teenager’s charge to the first set in her first appearance on Rod Laver Arena came to a dramatic halt as she called for a medical timeout at the change of ends, complaining of breathing problems.
After her blood pressure and pulse were taken she departed for further treatment.
On her return she managed to get to set point on the Romanian’s serve, but once Halep held the tide turned.
Aiava was still dazed and even tried to change ends at 5-3 in her confused state until the umpire gently ushered her back.
“I think she didn’t know what’s the score,” said Halep.
“I think she thought it’s set when she took the medical. The medical maybe helped me. I was lucky a little bit.”
Halep showed little of the form which helped her to the Shenzhen title two weeks ago but used her all experience to extend the rallies and force the ailing Australian to dig deep.
Halep eventually forced a tiebreak and finally squeezed over the finish line 7-5 in the tiebreaker to snatch a marathon first set after 73 minutes.
After racing into a 2-0 lead to start the second there was more drama when Halep rolled her ankle horribly chasing down a backhand and fell to the ground needing immediate attention from the physio.
But when she returned with her right ankle newly taped she immediately broke Aiava for 3-0, a moment greeted by almost silence from the home supporters who badly needed to be lifted by the fast-fading Aiava.
But it wasn’t to be as Halep got to the second round for the first time since 2015.
“I felt a big pain on court, but I didn’t have time to go to check it,” Halep said of her ankle. “My ankles are not good.”
She now faces a mouth-watering clash against Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard, a former semi-finalist in Melbourne and Roland Garros, and a finalist at Wimbledon in 2014 after beating Halep in the semi-final — the last time the pair met.
“We didn’t play together since long time. Wimbledon semi maybe. So long time ago,” said Halep.
“I know that she’s staying at the baseline. She tries to hit very fast. I have to do also the same game.”
Two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova crashed out in Melbourne, losing 6-3, 4-6, 10-8 to Andrea Petkovic.
Kvitova double-faulted on match point, two points after hitting a half-court volley into the net. She had earlier saved three match points in the 10th game of the final set.
Last year during the Australian Open, Kvitova was recovering from surgery to her left hand as a result of a knife attack from an assailant who broke into her home in the Czech Republic in late December, 2016.
Kvitova, the 27th-seed player this year, was a semi-finalist in Australia in 2012 and also made the quarter finals in 2011.
Maria Sharapova advanced to the second round after defeating Germany’s Tatjana Maria, 6-1, 6-4 at the Margaret Court Arena.
It was the Russian superstar’s first time back at the tournament since 2016, when she tested positive for a banned substance called meldonium.
Although Sharapova claimed it was used to treat a heart condition, the violation saw her suspended from competition for 15 months.
“I know what level I can play and what tennis I can produce,” the former world No. 1 said.
“But I’m also realistic, the process of coming back takes time, so I’ll keep learning and I’ll keep building.
“I’m not overly confident (about winning the tournament) but I have expectations because of the previous results through my career.”
Determined to get back to the form that saw her win five Grand Slam titles, Sharapova returned to competition in April 2017.
“I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of things out of the way physically, mentally and emotionally,” the Russian said.
“Some things are coming along slower than I’ve wanted but some things I feel good about.”
At the end of last year, the 30-year-old received a huge confidence boost after winning the Tianjin Open, and believes that time on the court is the key to recapturing her past success.
“I think confidence comes with time and match play and putting yourself in situations where you are able to take those opportunities,” she said.
“I know nothing will be handed to me, you have to work for every point of every match.”
Order of play
DAY 3 (from 4am UAE time)
ROD LAVER ARENA
Katerina Siniakova (CZE) v 4-Elina Svitolina (UKR)
Jana Fett (CRO) v 2-Caroline Wozniacki (DEN)
1-Rafa Nadal (ESP) v Leonardo Mayer (ARG)
3-Grigor Dimitrov (BUL) v Mackenzie McDonald (USA)
23-Daria Gavrilova (AUS) v Elise Mertens (BEL)
Margaret Court Arena
Marta Kostyuk (UKR) v Olivia Rogowska (AUS)
Denis Shapovalov (CAN) v 15-Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA)
7-Jelena Ostapenko (LAT) v Duan Yingying (CHN)
GMT Alize Cornet (FRA) v 12-Julia Goerges (GER)
Alexandr Dolgopolov (UKR) v Matthew Ebden (AUS)
15-Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS) v Kateryna Bondarenko (UKR)
Belinda Bencic (SUI) v Luksika Kumkhum (THA)
Joao Sousa (POR) v 6-Marin Cilic (CRO)
17-Nick Kyrgiois (AUS) v Viktor Troicki (SRB)