Somewhere in the middle of the third set, surrounded by sea of blue of the Rod Laver Arena, Simona Halep stood behind the baseline clutching her hamstring, her big eyes glassy, heart pounding from the effort she had put in, her body on the edge of giving up as she lost serve in the sixth game, to trail 2-4 in the decider. About an hour earlier Halep had been a set and a break up, and was looking to close out the match against World No 56 Sofia Kenin on a canter.
But there are no easy matches for Halep. Not at the Australian Open.
Her run up to the 2018 final had been exhausting. In the third round itself, Halep was taken the distance by America’s Lauren Davis. The Romanian had suffered from ankle pain while Davis had been treated for foot blisters. In a contest that lasted three hours and 44 minutes, and 333 points, Halep had tumbled over the finish line with a score of 4-6, 6-4, 15-13. In the semi-final, she survived two match points against Angelique Kerber to win 6-3, 4-6, 9-7 after two hours and 20 minutes.
At last year’s Australian Open the small-built Romanian drained her physical reserves to the point that she had to be taken to the hospital after the final and was treated for exhaustion and dehydration. During an epic final against Caroline Wozniacki that lasted two hours and 50 minutes in stiflingly humid conditions, she had suffered from cramps and had her blood pressure checked in the second set.
It had ended in a heartbreaking 7-6, 6-3, 6-4 for Halep: her third straight loss in three Grand Slam finals.
She returned to Melbourne this time, with a French Open in her kitty, having attained the honour of being the “real No 1” in women’s tennis and a promise of more attritional tennis.
There was no time to break-in at the Australian Open. In the first round, she was drawn to play veteran Estonian Kaia Kanepi, who had defeated Halep in the opening round at the 2018 US Open.
The 27-year-old Romanian was coming off a cautious off-season, having spent most of it in recuperating from a back injury. She had split with her coach Darren Cahill in November 2018 and had played only one match in the run-up to the Australian Open.
But Halep overcame the odds, and a hard-hitting Kanepi, to win 6-7, 6-4, 6-2 in two hours and 11 minutes. According to Australian Open’s new statistical feature, ‘Player DNA’, the Romanian had “worked the hardest (2305 KJ) out of any seed that advanced to the second round.” She had also covered the most distance, 1.96 km, amongst the seeded players in round one.
“I couldn’t sleep at all that night,” Halep explained. “I had pain in my legs and it was tough. But I had one day between matches and it was great. Today, I felt better and I was ready to play another match.”
It seemed a lopsided contest on paper against the 20-year-old Kenin, who was playing only the eighth Grand Slam of her career. Halep was too solid in the first half of the match and raced to a 6-3, 3-0 lead. Kenin’s shots had lacked direction in the beginning, but the American still struck the ball with enough conviction and bite. She launched a stunning comeback bid in the second set, rifling her shots with greater precision to shell-shock Halep. Kenin cut down Halep’s lead and pushed the second set into a tie-breaker.
Despite her inexperience on the big stage, or because of it, the American played a nerveless shootout. She broke the deadlock at 5-5, with a backhand winner down the line that Halep didn’t even attempt to retrieve. Up a set point, Kenin went flat-out, literally. Hoping to give Halep no top-spin to work with, she flattened out the strokes and had two of them bounce off the let cord. After moving from corner to corner, Halep finally cracked, over-hitting a backhand that sailed well long.
The tie-break was only a precursor to an intense, high-quality third set. The first game itself went to eight deuces and lasted 10 minutes. Kenin, buoyed on by her expressive father in the players’ box, battled Halep, blow for blow. Both players ran like their life depended on it and still managed to eke out angles and strike winners. While Halep finished up with 33 winners, Kenin was only one short at 32.
The experienced Romanian was the first to blink. Visibly tired and possibly injured, Halep cut a broken figure after conceding a break in the sixth game. Halep had run as only Halep could, and yet she found herself 2-4 down, two games away from an early exit.
Just as she had clutched on to her hurting hamstring before, the world No 1 grabbed on to hope. Whatever energy she had left, she poured into the next four games. Halep was helped on by Kenin, who showed a little wobble as she took lead for the first time in the match. The American served a double fault and was forced into errors by her resilient rival in the seventh game to hand Halep an instant break back. That little shift in momentum was enough for Halep to swing it her way. With the finish line now in sight, she galloped towards it, winning three games in a row.
“I’ve no idea how I won tonight,” said Halep in the courtside interview. “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.”
There are no easy matches for Halep: she plays the ageless Venus Williams next.
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Updated Date: Jan 17, 2019 22:11:48 IST