Simona Halep spoilt the Barty Party at the ‘Day at The Drive’ in Adelaide on Friday evening, when she snagged the match tiebreak to beat the World No 1, 3-6 6-1 [10-8], but it didn’t matter as Australia celebrated the return of top flight tennis with a healthy crowd of spectators to give the occasion a long-awaited buzz.
Ash doesn’t look like she didn’t play last year. So well done. It’s going to be a great fight always when I play against her. Simona Halep
In the first set, Ash Barty showed had not lost any of the silky talent she possesses, having not played a competitive match since last March, while Halep scrambled to find her range and regain her breath.
“I need oxygen,” she joked to the umpire. “ After two weeks in quarantine…”
It was a good humoured affair and, at the start of the second set, there was some stunning play as Halep dug in and took charge in commanding form, breaking Barty, whose form then dropped off enough for the Romanian to level and force the breaker with the loss of just a single game.
Barty found her forehand from the start and the two were level to 2-2, when the Aussie plied on the pressure to break and then broke Halep again in the 6th game to open a 5-2 lead with an ace a few minutes later.
Halep held, and Barty landed a service winner in the next game to close the opener 6-3 in 29 minutes, looking sharp on the court.
She created a break chance in the second set’s first game with a return winner, denied by the Romanian, who got out of the jam to save the game in what proved to be the turning point.
Halep found her groove and started to play much better, digging in to neutralise Barty’s vicious slice.
She grabbed a break following a massive overhead error from Barty at the net and stepped out to a 4-1 lead before pocket the set with a service winner.
Although women will fight out their singles matches in a complete third set at AO21, which is set to begin on 8 February,, a match tiebreak decided the final sets in Adelaide.
The two traded 6 mini-breaks in the opening ten points to stay locked at 5-5, before Halep opened a 7-5 gap with a forced error.
Barty pulled it back in the 14th point when Halep’s forehand landed long, but spoiled it all that at 8-8 following a loose forehand that found the net to offer up match point.
Serving at 9-8, Halep constructed a beautiful attack and sealed the deal after forcing a mistake from Ashleigh, making a winning start to her Aussie Summer campaign.
“Ash doesn’t look like she didn’t play last year,” said the smiling Romanian. “So well done. It’s going to be a great fight always when I play against her.”
Barty was delighted to compete in front 4,000 fans in Adelaide again.
“It’s absolutely fantastic to be back. I genuinely missed this so much,” said Barty, who lifted her 8th WTA singles trophy at the inaugural Adelaide International last year. “It’s just been great to be back.
“I’ve been getting a little bit impatient these past two or three months, getting ready to play.”
Barty will have her next opportunity to do so at the Yarra Valley Classic at Melbourne Park from Sunday, where as the top seed she receives a first-round bye.
The intensive training block that began last October was clearly beneficial as Barty noted that the long-awaited match play delivered many rewards.
“I’ve trained over the last few months but nothing can replicate what we just did out here today and there’s a little bit of execution of course that we’d like to get right, but I just enjoyed it so much,” she said.
“I think that’s the most important thing – when you come back out on the court, you love what you do.”
That enjoyment will be paramount as Barty looks ahead to an 8th AO appearance.
“I’m excited to get started, and if it’s not good next week it might be the week after,” she said.
“I’ll just keep chipping away, trying to do the best that I can each day.”
Meanwhile, the draws for Melbourne’s first two WTA 500 events of the season, the Yarra Valley Classic and the Gippsland Trophy, were unveiled on Friday, with 14 of the world’s Top 20 players participating in one of the two tournaments.
This pair of WTA 500 events begin on Sunday and will be played concurrently at Melbourne Park, with each featuring 54 singles players in the main draws, as well as 28 doubles teams.
Barty heads the Yarra Valley Classic, with reigning AO champion Sofia Kenin of the United States placed at the bottom of the draw as the No 2 seed.
Seven-time AO champion Serena Williams will also be a factor in this tournament’s field.
Barty is projected to face No 7 seed Petra Martic of Croatia in the quarter-finals, with Australian legend Samantha Stosur also lurking in the top quarter.
A blockbuster quarter-final matchup between two former World No.1 players, No 5 seed Serena Williams and No 3 seed Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, could take place in the top half of the draw, with the winner to potentially face Barty in the semis.
In the bottom half of the draw, an all-Czech, all-left-handed quarter-final could take place between No 4 seed Petra Kvitova and No 8 seed Marketa Vondrousova.
Former World No 1 Venus Williams of the United States is looming in this third quarter of the draw, and the American legend will meet Kvitova in the second round if she can defeat Arantxa Rus of the Netherlands in the first round.
In the bottom-most quarter, Kenin and No 6 seed Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain might face off in a quarter-final rematch of last year’s Australian Open final while No 11 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia, who has reached the quarters in 3 of the last 4 AOs, could face Muguruza in the round of 16.
Halep leads the charge at the Gippsland Trophy as the No 1 seed, while reigning US Open champion Naomi Osaka of Japan is seeded second at the bottom of the draw.
Halep could face No 6 seed Iga Swiatek of Poland in this event’s quarter-finals, which would be a rematch of their round of 16 encounter at last year’s Roland Garros, where Swiatek shocked Halep en route to her first Grand Slam title in Paris.
The top half of the Gippsland Trophy draw stays challenging, as the second quarter is led by No 4 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, who carries a 15-match winning streak into the event and won the 2021 season’s first title in Abu Dhabi.
Sabalenka is projected to face No 8 seed Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals.
In the bottom half, a possible quarter-final is brewing between No 3 seed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine and No 7 seed Elise Mertens of Belgium.
A host of former Top 10 players are also in this quarter, including Jelena Ostapenko, Caroline Garcia, Sara Errani, and Andrea Petkovic. Ostapenko and Errani will square off in the first round.
In the final quarter, Osaka could meet No 5 seed Johanna Konta of Great Britain in the quarter-finals, while No 14 seed Coco Gauff of the United States is a potential round-of-16 opponent for the Japanese.
Additionally, a third WTA 500 event of the week, the Grampians Trophy, will take place from Wednesday, 3 February to Sunday, 7 February, also at Melbourne Park, the draw for which will take place on Monday.
The 28-player Grampians Trophy will be contested among the players who were subject to hard quarantine on their arrival in Australia, with the later start date allowing for additional preparation time.
The top seed will be 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu, who will play her first tour event since the 2019 Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen.
Among the other names playing at the singles-only Grampians Trophy are former AO champions Victoria Azarenka and Angelique Kerber, former US Open champions Sloane Stephens and Svetlana Kuznetsova, and Top 20 players Belinda Bencic and Elena Rybakina.