MELBOURNE, Australia — It was happening all over again to Simona Halep: Seeded No. 1 at a Grand Slam tournament, in danger of bowing out in the first round – and against the same opponent, no less.
This time, Halep dug herself out of a deficit and figured out a way to stay at Melbourne Park.
Down by a set and a break Tuesday, Halep turned things around and defeated 71st-ranked Kaia Kanepi of Estonia 6-7 (2), 6-4, 6-2, reeling off the last four games and 13 of the final 15 points to avoid becoming the first top-seeded woman in 40 years to lose her opening match at the Australian Open.
It also would have been only the seventh time at any major tournament that the No. 1 woman departed so early. This sixth instance of just that sort of upset? It came in September at the previous Slam, when Halep – yes, Halep – was beaten by Kanepi – yes, Kanepi – on Day 1 at the U.S. Open.
When her disastrous and disappointing showing in New York was brought up after Tuesday’s match, Halep couldn’t help but smile.
“Well, I don’t want to remember about that match,” she said, “because it was a tough one.”
Since professionals were first admitted to Grand Slam tournaments in 1968, only once has a woman seeded No. 1 lost her opening match at the Australian Open: It happened in 1979 to Virginia Ruzici, who just so happens to be Halep’s manager.
Things have been turbulent lately for Halep, a Romanian who was the runner-up to Caroline Wozniacki in Melbourne a year ago, before collecting her first major championship at the French Open a few months later.
But after closing 2018 with a four-match losing streak and dealing with a problematic back, her offseason was marked by the departure of coach Darren Cahill, whom she has yet to replace.
A loss to Kanepi in Australia would have added to the series of problems, and that was the direction in which Halep appeared to be headed, trailing by a set and 2-1 in the second after getting broken. But Halep broke right back there and again to claim that set.
From 2-all in the third, Halep held to go ahead, and then came the key moment.
Kanepi was serving at 40-love when she dropped five points in a row via groundstroke unforced errors – four on backhands – to get broken to 4-2. After that game, a blister on Kanepi’s left ring finger was treated by a trainer, and Halep was well on her way to a victory she said would give her “a lot of confidence.”
“I had to be strong in the legs,” Halep said, “and believe that I could win the match.”
This time, she did.