MELBOURNE – World number one Simona Halep had to come from 5-2 and a set point down against Australian teenager Destanee Aiava to win a dramatic first-round match at the Australian Open on Tuesday.
Both the Romanian and her 17-year-old wildcard opponent needed on-court medical attention before top seed Halep ran out a battling 7-6 (7/5), 6-1 winner in an hour and 51 minutes.
The top seed had fallen at the first hurdle in the past two years at Melbourne Park and another shock was beckoning when the big-hitting Australian took a 5-2 lead in the first set buoyed by rowdy home supporters.
“She was a very tough opponent,” said a relieved Halep after the match. “She's very talented and powerful. She reminds me a little bit of Serena Williams.”
But the fearless teenager's charge to the first set in her first appearance on Rod Laver Arena came to a dramatic halt as she called for a medical timeout at the change of ends, complaining of breathing problems. After her blood pressure and pulse were taken she departed for further treatment. On her return she managed to get to set point on the Romanian's serve, but once Halep held the tide turned.
Aiava was still dazed and even tried to change ends at 5-3 in her confused state until the umpire gently ushered her back.
Halep showed little of the form which helped her to the Shenzhen title two weeks ago but used her all experience to extend the rallies and force the ailing Australian to dig deep.
Halep eventually forced a tiebreak and finally squeezed over the finish line 7-5 in the tiebreaker to snatch a marathon first set after 73 minutes.
After racing into a 2-0 lead to start the second there was more drama when Halep rolled her ankle horribly chasing down a backhand and fell to the ground needing immediate attention from the physio.
But when she returned with her right ankle newly taped she immediately broke Aiava for 3-0, a moment greeted by almost silence from the home supporters who badly needed to be lifted by the fast-fading Aiava.
But it wasn't to be as Halep got to the second round for the first time since 2015.
“I have a little injury so I don't know how it is going to be,” Halep said of her ankle. “But it was a nice atmosphere out here even though you were all supporting her.”
She now faces a mouth-watering clash against Canada's Eugenie Bouchard, a former semi-finalist in Melbourne and Roland Garros, and a finalist at Wimbledon in 2014.