Melbourne: Simona Halep overcame a poor start and a fiery opponent at the Australian Open to prevail 7-6(5) 6-1 over big-hitting American Jennifer Brady in their first round encounter on Tuesday.
The Romanian fourth seed was broken in the very first game of the match and later took a nasty tumble during a punishing rally at 5-5 in the first set.
After a medical timeout, Halep began playing more aggressively, eventually edging out Brady in a tense tie-break to take the opening set.
A break early in the second set put Halep back in command and she clinched the match after 1 hour and 36 minutes.
Maria Sharapova loses in first round for third straight slam
Former champion Maria Sharapova made her earliest Australian Open exit in a decade on Tuesday and said she was unsure whether her troublesome shoulder injury would allow her to return next year.
In the main draw on a wild card with a world ranking of 145, the 32-year-old Russian put up a dogged mid-match fight on Rod Laver Arena before crumpling to a 6-3 6-4 defeat at the hands of Donna Vekic.
It was only Sharapova’s second competitive outing since last September’s US Open, where she fell at the first hurdle to Serena Williams.
Five-times Grand Slam champion Sharapova cut a forlorn figure in the post-match press conference as she was questioned about her injury problems.
“I’m not the only one,” she said. “You know, I can speak about my struggles and the things that I’ve gone through with my shoulder, but it’s not really in my character to.
“So, I was there. I put myself out there. As tough as it was, I finished the match and, yeah, it wasn’t the way that I wanted.”
Asked directly whether her 15th visit to Melbourne Park might be her last, Sharapova said there were no guarantees.
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” she said. “I was fortunate to get myself to be here and thanks to (the organisers for) allowing me to be part of this event.
“It’s tough for me to tell what’s going to happen in 12 months’ time.”
Vekic proved a formidable opponent on the court where Sharapova won the 2008 title and the 19th seed raced to a 5-1 lead in the opening set before the former world number one found a way to get back into the contest.
With her trademark grunt at full volume, Sharapova made Vekic work hard to close out the set and quickly took a 4-1 lead in the second.
She was unable to maintain her momentum, however, and lost the next four games to leave the Croatian needing only to serve out to seal a second-round meeting with Alize Cornet or Monica Niculescu.
Sharapova produced a magnificent backhand return that kissed the line to save Vekic’s first match point but was well wide of the tramlines with a similar shot on the second.
Despite the dispiriting defeat, Sharapova said she still had the motivation to get back into the sort of shape that would enable her to play more than the eight tournaments she managed in 2019.
“I would like to,” she said. “I don’t know — you know, I don’t have a crystal ball to tell you if I can or if I will, but I would love to, yeah.”
Konta philosophical after early exit
British number one Johanna Konta was philosophical about her first-round exit in only her second match since last year’s US Open.
The 12th seed, clearly not yet match fit on her return from a knee injury that cut short her 2019 season, lost 6-4 6-2 to Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur in just over an hour on court one.
A semi-finalist at Melbourne Park four years ago and Roland Garros last year, Konta sprayed 19 unforced errors and struggled to hold her serve throughout the contest but still bounded into the press conference room with a smile on her face.
“It’s an unfortunate thing. It’s part of the sport and it’s part of also the way I play, and it’s something that will come with time and matches,” she told reporters.
“I think ultimately the main thing was to start playing again, and I am. And how I physically felt out there is obviously a massive tick for me compared to where I was in September of last year.
“I think giving myself that time to find a level that I want to play is going to be important. I also played a very good opponent so it’s not all on my racket.”
World number 78 Jabeur, who will next face Caroline Garcia, secured her fourth break of serve to win the contest when Konta overcooked a backhand return.
The Tunisian also beat Konta in two sets in their only previous meeting at Eastbourne last year before the Briton went on her run to the quarter-finals at Wimbledon.
“I expected her to be inspired to play well, and she’s the kind of player that also gets on a bit of a roll,” Konta said.
“It’s unfortunate that I couldn’t quite find a way to make things more difficult for her ... I guess that’s just where we are right now.”
Konta said one “big positive” from the trip to the country of her birth was that her knee felt okay on court and she dismissed the idea she might need surgery.
“It is improving,” the 28-year-old said. “It is improved. I mean, I’m not going to cut myself open just for the hell of it.
“I knew that by taking a decision to come play here, I was opening myself up to potentially it not going well.
“But what was good today was my knee felt quite good ... that’s a very positive thing for me, especially for where I was in September.”
Bencic bandwagon rolls into second round
The Belinda Bencic bandwagon is rolling again after her maiden Grand Slam semi-final appearance at last year’s U.S. Open, but given her extended run of injuries and dips in form the Swiss is reluctant to jump on board too quickly.
Bencic, who advanced to the second round at Melbourne Park on Tuesday with a 6-3 7-5 win over Slovakia’s Anna Schmiedlova, knows only too well how quick hopes can be dashed.
Her recent run at Flushing Meadows came five years after her maiden Grand Slam quarter-final in New York where the then-17-year-old was feted as a potential successor to compatriot Martina Hingis.
In the intervening years, wrist surgery and a string of other fitness problems repeatedly robbed her of momentum and confidence and getting back to her best took plenty of patience.
But it all came together in a rush last year as she claimed titles at Dubai and Moscow before sneaking into the season-ending WTA Finals for the first time.
Seeded sixth at the Australian Open, her highest at a Slam, Bencic is being seen as a Grand Slam contender again and the 22-year-old said the billing did give her confidence.
“It does, but on the other side it doesn’t buy me anything,” she told reporters after her win over Schmiedlova.
“It doesn’t matter anymore that I played Grand Slam semi-final in U.S. Open. Now it’s a new Grand Slam and I still have to win my matches to get there eventually again.
“So, yes, it’s about the confidence, for sure, but I think the expectation is a little bit bigger and I think you can’t compare yourself with U.S. Open right now. You have to focus on a brand new Grand Slam.”
Mentored by five-times Grand Slam champion Hingis, Bencic lacks power on her groundstrokes but her court craft and guile often trouble the game’s hardest hitters.
That was never more evident than at the U.S. Open when she dumped defending champion Naomi Osaka out of the fourth round, redirecting the Japanese player’s firepower and often leaving her wrongfooted.
Bencic’s serve also lacks punch, so she has not joined other Tour players by pledging money for Australia’s bushfire relief efforts with every ace she hits at Melbourne Park.
She is instead donating $200 for every double-fault she racks up.
She caused a minor stir in the lead-up to the tournament by cheekily inviting men’s seventh seed Alex Zverev to buy into her fundraising model after the young German racked up an eye-popping amount of double-faults during the ATP Cup.
With four double-faults against Schmiedlova, Bencic contributed another $800 to the relief efforts for the fires that have killed 29 people and left thousands homeless.
“I could have done more (double-faults), but I didn’t,” she said.
Pliskova gets good workout to advance
Second seed Karolina Pliskova got exactly what she needed in her 6-1 7-5 victory over a determined Kristina Mladenovic on Rod Laver Arena.
Czech Pliskova will next play either Germany’s Laura Siegemund or American wildcard CoCo Vandeweghe.
Pliskova, a semi-finalist at Melbourne Park last year, was at her imperious best with her groundstrokes in a 25-minute first set she totally dominated despite a wayward serve.
Mladenovic, however, stepped up her game in the second, the 26-year-old Frenchwoman moving Pliskova around the court more and the Czech was forced to work harder for her points and improve a first serve that landed just 50% in the first set.
She upped that to 78% in the second and won the points that mattered to continue a perfect start to 2020 after she won the Brisbane International title last week.
“I think it was quite good for first match,” Pliskova told reporters. “Of course the match was not easy. So I think, yeah, it was a good test for a first round.”
The only resistance Mladenovic put up early on was in the nine-minute third game when she held two break points, but world number two Pliskova was able to fight them off.
Mladenovic managed to get on the board when she finally held in the sixth game, but Pliskova served out in the next game, wrapping up the first set with her second ace in 36 minutes.
Such was Pliskova’s dominance in the first set Mladenovic failed to win a point in four of the seven games.
Mladenovic was far better in the second set and while she was broken for the third time in the match to give Pliskova a 4-3 advantage, she converted the first of her seven break opportunities in the next game.
She then held to take a 5-4 lead but any hope of extending the match to a decider fizzled as Pliskova won the next three games to seal her spot in the second round.
“I think it starts always with me,” said the Czech. “If I play good and fast enough, deep enough, then there is not much she can do.
“So it was ... mainly about me, because I thought if I can just play good tennis, I think I’m going to be fine, which I kind of was.”
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Updated Date: Jan 21, 2020 18:14:56 IST