MELBOURNE (Reuters) – World number one Simona Halep flirted with another early exit from the Australian Open and suffered an ankle injury before rallying to reach the second round with a 7-6(5) 6-1 victory over local teenager Destanee Aiava on Tuesday.
The Romanian top seed was almost blown off the court by the big-hitting 17-year-old Melburnian in the opening stanza, forced to save two set points at 5-2 down and come from 3-1 down to rescue the tiebreak.
The 26-year-old turned her ankle reaching for a shot at the start of the second but returned with the joint strapped up to claim what was ultimately a comfortable victory.
“It’s been a very tough match, she was playing really well, she’s hitting the ball very strong and it wasn’t easy to get a rhythm at the beginning,” Halep said.
“I just fought back and I believed I could win this match and I did everything I could.
“I had a little injury, I don’t know how it is. I’m waiting to see how it is after the recovery because now it’s still warm and I cannot feel it.”
Aiava, who qualified for the tournament through a wildcard playoff last month, showed why Australia is so excited about her emerging talent in a 73-minute opening set featuring six breaks of serve.
Pounding huge groundstrokes from the back of the court, Aiava reminded Halep at least of the absent women’s defending champion.
“She is very talented, she is powerful, and I think she is going to be very good,” the Romanian added. “She’s a little bit like Serena, she’s hitting the ball strong, she’s a powerful girl and for sure she will be good in the future.”
The Australian broke for 5-2 after seven deuces in game seven when Halep, under all sorts of pressure, dumped a backhand into the net.
Aiava needed treatment on court for shortness of breath and then took a medical timeout for a further examination in the dressing room.
On her return, she came within a whisker of claiming the set, only for Halep to wrest the two set points off her and then knock off the four of the next five games to force the tiebreak.
Halep was not home and dry, though, and had just saved two break points to hold in her first service game of the second when she took a tumble on the blue Rod laver Arena court, requiring a medical timeout of her own.
Playing through the pain and keeping Aiava moving as much as possible with her accurate shots, however, Halep grew more assured as the Australian became more flustered and secured the win when her opponent sent a forehand wide.
Halep, who was knocked out in the first round in four of her last six visits to Melbourne Park, will next test the ankle when she meets former Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard.
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney in Sydney; Editing by John O’Brien)