World No 1 Simona Halep survived her second scare of the Australian Open late on Thursday afternoon against up-and-coming American Sofia Kenin, who took her the distance.
It was a very tough one, she's an amazing player Simona Halep
What started out as a dream match for the top seed, turned into a nightmare as she fought back from a break down in the final set to fend off the 20-year-old for a 6-3 6-7(5) 6-4 win for a place in the third round where she will face Venus Williams.
Kenin recovered from an error-strewn start to go toe-to-toe with Halep, battling back from a break down in the second set to force a tense decider that drew the best from both players.
“I’ve no idea how I won tonight,” said Halep, who claimed the last four games of the match from 2-4 down to seal the win.
“It’s so tough to explain what happened on court, but it was a very tough one against an amazing player.”
Halep, 27, won the first set comfortably and appeared to be cruising at 3-0 up in the third when her momentum faltered and she found herself in a dogfight for survival.
“It was difficult to stay in there for every ball and run so much,” she said.
“I got a little bit injured in the second set but I just fought because I wanted to win.”
Halep did not provide details of her injury but a herniated disc cut short her season last year.
She lost an epic final to Caroline Wozniacki in Melbourne in 2018 but arrived this year on a five-match losing streak, equalling the worst run of her career.
The Romanian paid tribute to Kenin, a Russian-born American aged just 20, who lost in the first round on her only previous campaign at Melbourne Park last year.
“It was a very tough one, she’s an amazing player,” she said.
Halep made a promising start with a break in the first game and kept the rallies short on her own serve to hold easily.
Kenin’s error rate mounted as the first set wore on and Halep broke again to claim it after 33 minutes.
Halep looked to be cruising early in the second set, with Kenin scoring only two points as the Romanian raced to a 3-0 lead, but the American fought back with a break in the fifth and took the set to a tiebreak, forcing a decider when the Romanian hit her drive long after a 12-shot rally.
The top seed left the court before the third and redoubled her efforts on her return, subjecting Kenin’s opening service game to the sternest of examinations.
The clock ticked past 10 minutes before the American escaped, trading backhand winners to repeat the feat in the fifth game and stay in front 2-3.
Disaster loomed when the Romanian went down a break in the sixth game but she rallied to get back on level terms in the next, then made a decisive second break.
Kenin arrived at Melbourne Park fresh from winning her maiden WTA title in Hobart and earned her first Australian Open match win the hard way, seeing off Veronika Kudermetova in three sets and over two hours.
Her first-round match was just six minutes short of Halep’s two-hour, 12-minute opening win over Kaia Kanepi and both were eclipsed by Thursday’s two-hour, 31-minute contest that see-sawed to the very end.
With the roof closed on Rod Laver Arena, in the end, Halep proved a class apart when it mattered against Kenin, bringing the American’s six-match streak on Australian soil to an end.
Then it got seriously interesting. Having been in control of her service games, Halep suddenly slumped to break point down in the next game, saving the first with an ace. On the second, however, she tried to break up a backhand cross-court exchange with a drive down the line that landed just long.
A hold for 5-2 would have surely sealed Halep’s fate, but Kenin’s first meaningful lead of the match lasted a mere six points. The top seed broke back, then broke again as Kenin sprayed a wild backhand long and wide, her form letting her down when she needed it most.
In contrast to all that had come before, Halep served out the match comfortably, sealing victory on her second match point with a service winner before offering up a prayer, a kiss, and a relieved smile.
Shortly after, in the first of the evening matches, Serena Williams made pretty short work of Eugenie Bouchard, winning through 6-2 6-2 in an hour and 10 minutes.
The much-hailed encounter proved a bit of a let down after all the hype leading into it.
While seeded 16, Williams showed that she is a far more serious threat than that by beating the improving Canadian after a delayed start to their third round contest caused by a backlog of matches.
Williams, who again warmed up in her overcoat-like jacket despite the sultry temperatures and sported her lime green ‘Serena-tard’, had her serve broken twice by Bouchard but her returning was so penetrating that it made little difference, and she wiped those out with six breaks of serve of her own.
She is chasing Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles this fortnight, and was seeing the ball well throughout, striking firmly against the powerful Bouchard in some entertaining exchanges.
While Bouchard went toe-to-toe with Williams well in many rallies, the 23-time major winner’s power and consistency proved too much for the 24-year-old on the Rod Laver Arena.
After the match Williams admitted she was wary of the threat the former Wimbledon finalist posed to her and credited that attitude to her fast start when she broke the Canadian in the opening game.
“It wasn’t an easy match tonight,” she said in her on-court interview.
“Genie has been to the finals of Wimbledon and to the semi-finals of other Slams so I knew, ‘come on Serena, you’ve got to come out hot’.
“I haven’t had many matches since last year but it’s ok. I got to spend time with my daughter that’s all that matters to me.”
The 37-year old American remains on course and now meets 18-year old Ukrainian Dayan Yastremska, less than half her age with an eye on facing either top seed Simona Halep or her sister Venus in the fourth round.
Yastremska, the World No 57, stunned Spain’s Carla Suárez Navarro, the 23rd seed, in an hour 10 minutes, 6-3 1-6 6-1, to book a spot in round three where she will face one of the all time greats.