MELBOURNE, Australia - No.4 seed Simona Halep needed to draw on all of her fighting qualities to edge out Jennifer Brady 7-6(5), 6-1 in the first round of the Australian Open, saving three set points in the first set before triumphing in one hour and 36 minutes.
Halep had reason to be wary of Brady: in their only previous meeting, she had needed an arduous two hours and 26 minutes to quell the American 4-6, 7-5, 7-6(5) in a second-round nailbiter in Toronto last August. Moreover, Brady had already established herself as one of the most dangerous unseeded floaters in the Melbourne draw after scalping two Grand Slam champions, Maria Sharapova and World No.1 Ashleigh Barty, to reach the Brisbane quarterfinals.
"I knew that she's going to be very motivated at the beginning. We played together a few months ago, and it was very close," the two-time Grand Slam champion told reporters after the match.
"I knew that she has a big forehand. [Her] backhand actually was really good, as well, today. I knew that she's serving well.
"I had just to push her back as much as possible, to make her run, playing a little bit both sides. I served pretty okay. And after that very tough set, in the second set I've been more relaxed. I've been a little bit more aggressive. I tried to finish some points, which I did."
The 24-year-old certainly brimmed with confidence as she rocketed out of the blocks, allowing Halep no time to ease into the match as she slammed three clean winners for an immediate break. Striking her heavy groundstrokes with authority, Brady held on to build a 4-2 lead as Halep was left scrapping to find a toehold in the match.
But the Wimbledon champion's tenacity when seemingly outgunned has been key to her becoming a two-time Grand Slam winner, and Halep responded by buckling down to work her way gradually back into the contest. Switching up her tactics to deploy the variety she has added to her game in recent years, a dropshot-lob combination and a reflex lob off her shoelaces paved the way to break back for 4-4.
This set the stage for a thrilling, knife-edge climax of the opening act. Serving at 5-5, Halep was on a roll, having struck three of her finest forehands to reach game point from 0-30 - only to slip and land on her right wrist. On resumption, the former World No.1 was just slightly more tentative - and paid the price to concede her serve.
The Romanian's wrist would require a medical time-out, but her grit was still strong. Serving for the set, Brady would reach set point three times: undone by a Halep pass on one of them, the World No.49 was now beginning to lose control of her groundstrokes has Halep extended the rallies, with errors deciding the other two.
Another brilliant pass would seal the break-back for Halep, who again proved the more clutch player in a narrowly contested tiebreak: Brady, who had begun the match combining power and accuracy, was now hitting herself out of more and more rallies. A backhand over the baseline, Brady's 22nd unforced error of the set, sealed the set for Halep.
After eking out such a hard-fought set, Halep made sure to press home her advantage. The 2018 runner-up would miss only two first serves and lose five points behind her delivery in the second set, and wound up posting a 100% (six-for-six) record at net to boot. Brady, by contrast, continued to descend into errors that came earlier and earlier in rallies, offering up 13 in the second act to Halep's meager four.
"I felt great...I didn't feel that I'm getting tired, which is a good sign. I recovered after Adelaide because there I felt a little bit weird," Halep continued. "I work hard here. I'm just happy about the way I played and also about the way I moved. It's really important to move well on these courts.
"I remember when I played once against [Shelby] Rogers and she beat me here, Zhang [Shuai], so big hitters, [Sloane] Stephens. Not easy to play with them at the first moment of the tournament because you are not ready, totally ready, you don't have the rhythm. But I had experience, and I knew that if I hang in there, I have a better chance to win."
An opening break, captured with yet another crowd-pleasing pass from Halep, set the Adelaide quarterfinalist on track for accelerating to the finishing line, breaking Brady three more times and wrapping up victory as a forehand from her opponent found the net. Next up for Halep will be British qualifier Harriet Dart, who edged Japan's Misaki Doi in a deciding match tiebreak, 2-6, 6-4, 7-6[10-6].
"I know her, but I didn't play against her. I didn't see her actually playing live. I know it's a tough opponent, like everyone," Halep said.
"As a top player, it's an advantage and not that much an advantage because everyone wants to get you. But if you think about that, you don't have time to think about yourself. I will try to focus on my game, to play what I want against her, and then we will see."