World No 1 Simona Halep survived a serious scare against her nemesis Kaia Kanepi, the player who took her out of the US Open in September, but came through in the end to reach the second round of the Australian Open on Tuesday, 6-7(2) 6-4 6-2.
The 2018 French Open champion found herself a set and a break down in the second but drew on all her reserves to break back and level.
She was, in fact, pushed all the way on Margaret Court Arena by the Estonian, who unfortunately suffered a distracting blister midway through the deciding set and subsequently fell away.
It was a welcome reprieve for the Romanian because there was little to separate them in that first set, which went to a tiebreak, and the second was nip and tuck as Halep gradually began to assert herself as Kanepi struggled more to convert points at the net.
As the match went on, Kanepi found herself suffering more with the blister on her hand, which affected her shot making, even after treatment, and Halep took full advantage.
“It was a pleasure to come back here and win the match!” admitted a relieved Halep in her on-court interview.
It was some measure of revenge over Kanepi, who knocked her out of the US Open in the first round, 6-2 6-4, but, more importantly, kept her campaign on track to protect last year’s finalists ranking points.
“I don’t want to remember that match – it was a tough one!” the Romania joked, referring to the final she lost last year.
This was Halep’s first win of the year after a long break due to a back injury and a loss in the first round of the Sydney International last week.
Still without a coach, with Darren Cahill taking a break, Halep has said that she will continue on her own for the first few months of the year before she tries to find a new one.
The top seed has recovered fully from the herniated disk that she aggravated at the China Open in September, but going into the match admitted that she was feeling a bit behind the curve.
“I’m motivated. But it’s a little bit different because last year I had about 10, 15 matches before Melbourne; now I have one, which I lost,” said Halep.
“I took the risk staying home a little bit longer. I rested because I felt like I’m exhausted after those tournaments and also the year that I had.”
Halep will meet 20-year-old American Sofia Kenin for a place in the third round.
Former World No 1and two-time champion Victoria Azarenka was dumped from the Australian Open at the first hurdle on Tuesday, throwing away a one-set lead against Germany’s Laura Siegemund.
The Belarusian, who has tumbled down the rankings since the birth of her son, Leo, and an ensuing and messy custody battle, ran out of steam in the steamy conditions, and slumped out 6-7(7) 6-4 6-2.
Siegemund trailed 4-2 in the second set before finding her second wind to come out on top of the almost three-hour marathon.
“I played a good first set and even though I was up in the tiebreak, I let go a little bit and she was right there,” said the World 110.
“I kind of reset myself and knew I was playing a good match, and I just had to close in those situations.”
The win was her first at a major since the 2016 US Open, as she continues to work her way back from a major knee injury in early 2017.
For Azarenka, it was her worst performance at Melbourne Park since a first-round exit on her debut in 2006.
She won the title in 2012 and 2013, but missed the last two tournaments because of giving birth and the custody battle.
In her post match press conference, a tearful Azarenka admitted she is struggling to reclaim her confidence in matches.
“I’ve been through a lot of things in my life and sometimes I wonder why I go through them, but I think they’re going to make me stronger, I want to believe that and I’m going to work hard for it. Sometimes I just need a little time and patience and a little support,” said Azarenka, while fighting back her tears
Currently ranked 53 in the world, Azarenka has been unable to recapture her previous top-10 form since returning from maternity leave in June 2017.
“It’s just playing matches, playing tournaments. I’m going to try to play as much as I can, try to build something,” she continued.
“My ambitions are high, I know what I’m capable of, to start to execute, take it step by step, it’s going to be a process.
“I have to work hard, I have to keep playing, I have to continue to try to find a way. We’ll see. It’s the beginning of the season, it’s a sh**** beginning of the season for me, but it’s not the end of the year.”
Fellow Mom, Serena Williams, had no such problems and made quite a statement, walking onto Rod Laver Arena in the intense heat in a black coat for her match against Tatjana Maria.
When she removed the outerwear, she revealed a mint-green Nike bodysuit paired with fishnet tights, the skintight look displaying her post-baby figure.
Serena has developed something of a reputation for her on-court ensembles, sporting a ‘supportive’ catsuit during the French Open last summer, a look which was subsequently banned, and following up with a tutu on court, the brainchild of ‘it’ fashion designer Virgil Abloh of Off-White, at the US Open.
The American’s on-court appearances have been rare since and she wasted no time on Tuesday in dismissing her opening-round opponent, Tatjana Maria of Germany, 6-0 6-2, in just 49 minutes.
From her opening serve, she was calm and confident, her game highlighted by the power, precision serving and aggressive, surgical forehands that have won her 23 Grand Slam singles titles.
She dropped only 5 points in the first set, won 63 percent of her break points and was 10-for-13 at the net.
A fellow tennis mum, Maria famously used her maternity break to retool her backhand into a single-hander, but it wasn’t nearly enough to pressure Serena.
The German needed 10 games to find any semblance of a rhythm, seemingly blindsided by Williams’ on-court presence before she tossed her first serve and, of course, by then, it was too late.
“I think it was a good match today. I didn’t make too many unforced errors,” the American said later. “She’s a tricky player. It could easily have been a 6-3 6-4 or three-set match.
“When I know someone is really good, I want to be focused and that was helpful for me today.
“It was nice to be back out there. I have been working really, really hard in the offseason to be incredibly fit and incredibly ready. But I’m still trying to get 12 months of playing under my belt.”
With little to say about the match, the media looked for more from Serena, who blotted her copybook in New York.
Appearing in her first press conference since that controversial match against Naomi Osaka in the US Open final in September, her presence was highly anticipated, but she slammed the door shut on the subject or any matters relating to it.
“I literally have no comment,” Williams said in response to the first question on the topic.
If she has learned anything from past experience, it is that silence is a valuable tool, and she skilfully steered the conversation back to fashion.
“You know, I took a year off, and, you know, just get back with still trying to get 12 months under my belt of playing, actually.
“We design really far in advance at Nike. I knew that I have been working really, really hard in the off season to be incredibly fit and incredibly ready.
“I wanted to be fit. I came back. Nike always wants to make an incredibly strong, powerful statement for mums that are trying to get back and get fit. That was basically it for me.”
She also dubbed her all-in-one jumpsuit a ‘Serena-tard’, sharing a picture of her look to her 10.5 million Instagram followers.
Her ‘playing solo’ caption is a subtle reference to the fact the last time Serena played the Australian Open, she was eight weeks pregnant with her first child, Alexia Olympia.
Chasing a record-tying 24th major with Margaret Court seemingly could be well within her grasp but a two-week campaign for a 37-year old is a long haul.
“I have been going for the record for what seems like forever now,” said Williams, who faces Eugenie Bouchard in the second round on Thursday.
“So it doesn’t feel any different this time.”
Regardless, the seven-time AO champion has sent a warning shot to the rest of the field.
Bouchard, her next opponent, came through a 6-2 6-1 winner over Shuai Peng of China.
The Canadian, who soared into the top 10 in 2014, dropped as low as 193 in the rankings last season but has worked her way back into double figures to earn herself a shot at the title favourite.
Bouchard admitted she had her eye on a clash with Williams as soon as the draw was made: “I’m super excited. This is why we play the big tournaments, to play the best players.”
Struggling to cope with the weight of expectation after her rapid rise, Bouchard has shown the ability to rise to the big occasion.
Still only 24, she said: “I’m enjoying the training and enjoying the matches. That’s the most important thing, because I have definitely had moments where I didn’t enjoy it so much.
“I knew deep down that I still believed in myself and my game and I’m still relatively young, so I know I still have a little bit of time to play tennis. I decided let’s just give it everything right now and see what happens.
“There were some very tough moments last year, for sure. But I’m proud that I stuck through them and turned my season around.”
Also safely through on Day 2 of the Aussie Open was Venus Williams, who took out 25th seeded Mihaela Buzarnescu from Romania, and included high seeds Naomi Osaka (4), Elina Svitolina (6), Karolina Pliskova (7), Elise Mertens (12), Madison Keys (17), Anastasija Sevastova (13) and Garbiñe Muguruza (18).