BEIJING, China - No.2 seed Simona Halep survived a tough first-round match at the China Open today to move past a hard-hitting Alison Riske 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 - a win that snapped the Romanian's three-match losing streak.
Both players were coming into today's encounter in sore need of form. Riske's record since Wimbledon was just 2-7, while Halep had not won a match since her defeat in the Cincinnati final to Garbiñe Muguruza.
It was the American who was steadier in the opening stages: firing her backhand in particular with consistent depth and pace, she maintained the pressure in an epic third game to eventually convert her fifth break point.
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Facing a 1-3 deficit, the two-time Roland Garros runner-up tightened up her game: taking the ball earlier, she began to spread the ball around the court with more intent. A forehand winner on the line garnered the 26-year-old an opportunity to draw back level in the sixth game, and Riske obliged with an ill-timed double fault - a weakness that would recur over the course of the match, with eight in total.
Though the World No.51 had two chances to regain her lead in the next game, groundstroke errors were her undoing. Riske's backhand long on the second break point triggered a streak of 12 consecutive lost points as Halep continued to hit her spots with flawless accuracy, reeling off five games in a row to take the opener. Overall, the set was a tale of break point opportunities: Halep seized both of hers, while Riske had converted just one of seven.
Riske was unfazed, though. Many of the 27-year-old's highlights have come on Chinese soil - her sole career title in Tianjin in 2014, as well as her only Top 5 win, over Agnieszka Radwanska in Shenzhen this January.
A brace of brilliant forehand winners renewed her hopes for a second Top 5 win today as she broke for 2-0 - and there was to be no repeat of the first set's lead evaporation. Committing firmly to an aggressive strategy but also displaying some impressive defensive resistance, Riske would not face a break point in the second set.
For her part, Halep was sinking back into the patterns with which she'd started the match: rallying passively instead of spreading the ball around the court, but pulling the trigger with poor shot selections to hit herself out of points unnecessarily.
The World No.2 was unable to sustain her better patches of play: a deployment of slices off both wings that befuddled Riske in the seventh game was never to be repeated. A spectacular forehand pass in the eighth game was followed by an inexplicable failed dropshot. When Riske double faulted again when serving for the set, Halep added to the pressure with a drive volley winner - then didn't put another return in play as her opponent took the match to a decider.
Nonetheless, Halep's quest for balance paid off once more in the third set. Though Riske painted the lines to fend off the first two break points she faced in the second game, an errant backhand gave up the immediate advantage - and from there, Halep resumed control as the American's groundstrokes grew increasingly wild.
The Riske resistance was enough to break back one final time - but, striking her forehand with renewed accuracy into the corners, Halep responded by reeling off 12 of the final 14 points of the match to set up a second-round encounter against Magdalena Rybarikova or Eugenie Bouchard.