Aussie Open No. 1 seed Halep avoids another 1st-round exit

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              Romania's Simona Halep makes a forehand return to Estonia's Kaia Kanepi during their first round match at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — It was happening all over again to Simona Halep: Seeded No. 1 at a Grand Slam tournament, in danger of bowing out in the first round — and against the same opponent, no less.

This time, Halep dug herself out of a deficit and figured out a way to stay at Melbourne Park.

Down by a set and a break Tuesday, Halep turned things around and defeated 71st-ranked Kaia Kanepi of Estonia 6-7 (2), 6-4, 6-2, reeling off the last four games and 13 of the final 15 points to avoid becoming the first top-seeded woman in 40 years to lose her opening match at the Australian Open.

It also would have been only the seventh time at any major tournament that the No. 1 woman departed so early. This sixth instance of just that sort of upset? It came in September at the previous Slam, when Halep — yes, Halep — was beaten by Kanepi — yes, Kanepi — on Day 1 at the U.S. Open.

When her disastrous and disappointing showing in New York was brought up after Tuesday’s match, Halep couldn’t help but smile.

“Well, I don’t want to remember about that match,” she said, “because it was a tough one.”

Since professionals were first admitted to Grand Slam tournaments in 1968, only once has a woman seeded No. 1 lost her opening match at the Australian Open: It happened in 1979 to Virginia Ruzici, who just so happens to be Halep’s manager.

Things have been turbulent lately for Halep, a Romanian who was the runner-up to Caroline Wozniacki in Melbourne a year ago, before collecting her first major championship at the French Open a few months later.

But after closing 2018 with a four-match losing streak and dealing with a problematic back, her offseason was marked by the departure of coach Darren Cahill, whom she has yet to replace.

A loss to Kanepi in Australia would have added to the series of problems, and that was the direction in which Halep appeared to be headed, trailing by a set and 2-1 in the second after getting broken. But Halep broke right back there and again to claim that set.

From 2-all in the third, Halep held to go ahead, and then came the key moment.

Kanepi was serving at 40-love when she dropped five points in a row via groundstroke unforced errors — four on backhands — to get broken to 4-2. After that game, a blister on Kanepi’s left ring finger was treated by a trainer, and Halep was well on her way to a victory she said would give her “a lot of confidence.”

“I had to be strong in the legs,” Halep said, “and believe that I could win the match.”

This time, she did.