MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Top seed Simona Halep showed grit and determination to come from a set down against Kaia Kanepi in a 6-7(2) 6-4 6-2 victory in the Australian Open on Tuesday and survive a repeat of a first-round Grand Slam exit at the hands of the Estonian.
In a rematch of last year’s U.S. Open first round, where Kanepi dumped her out in straight sets, Halep had to dig deep against the powerful groundstrokes of her opponent, who is ranked 71 but had not played since New York.
“At one point I didn’t know what to do any more because the ball was coming so strong. I just thought that I have to be strong on the legs, to be there closer to the line,” Halep said in her post-match news conference.
“If I was going back, I did not have a chance to return the balls. Then I stepped into the court few times and I was more aggressive, which was really important. The serve helped me today. So I think in the big picture it was a good game.”
The Romanian has struggled for form and fitness since her first-round defeat at Flushing Meadows last August and came into the year’s first Grand Slam short of preparation after a back injury ended her 2018 season prematurely.
Halep was on a five-match losing streak prior to the match and had to make sure she kept her unforced errors to a minimum.
“I’m just happy that I could win, nothing else. Nothing else matters because I’m not at the highest level of my tennis,” Halep added. “I’m just trying to feel good on court and to improve day by day.”
She began on the back foot against her big-hitting opponent and after an early trade of break of serves, Halep had to save two set points to force a tiebreaker.
The 33-year-old Kanepi easily won the tiebreaker as the frustration started showing on Halep, who also exited the Australian Open in the first round in 2016 and 2017.
The second set also saw a trade of breaks before Halep found her range and started hitting her returns a little deeper as the unforced errors kept climbing for Kanepi.
The world number one leveled the match at one set apiece on her fourth set point after Kanepi sent a backhand long.
The 2018 French Open champion broke Kanepi twice in the final set and sealed the match when her opponent sent a forehand wide for her 62nd unforced error, compared with 19 from Halep.
Halep, who will next play American Sofia Kenin, said she was not putting any pressure on herself.
“Well, no expectations because I’m not at the highest level. But I’m motivated,” she said. “I’m trying to just enjoy more and be happy on court.
“I’m not putting pressure on myself any more with the results. But I’m still motivated. What comes now, it’s a bonus.”
Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; editing by Christian Radnedge and Hugh Lawson