Top-seed Simona Halep avoids first-round upset at Australian Open

Romania's Simona Halep hits a forehand return to Estonia's Kaia Kanepi during their first round match at the Australian Open. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

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 off-season 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.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.