DUBAI, UAE - Pushed to the brink by an inspired Ons Jabeur in the second round, top seed Simona Halep used all of her mettle to escape with a 1-6, 6-2, 7-6(7) comeback victory and round out the quarterfinalists at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
Playing for the first time since falling to Garbiñe Muguruza in the semifinals of the Australian Open last month, Halep was not only forced to rally from a set down to see off the in-form Tunisian in a match that lasted exactly two hours in front of an impassioned crowd, but save match point in a dramatic final set that had it all.
"It was like a football match or a Fed Cup match. I didn't really realize what is going on on court. Everyone was with a lot of energy so we had to give our best. I think it was a great match," Halep said after the victory.
"The only one thing that you have to do when you don't have rhythm during the match, just put your head down and fight for every ball. You never know when you can win an easy ball or a tough ball. What I had to do is just to fight. I'm really proud that I could do that."
After leading 4-1 in the decider, the World No.2 lost five of the next six games and Jabeur stepped to the line to serve for a statement victory - and her first completed match won against the Romanian, having earned a retirement-shortened win at the China Open last fall.
Halep stayed alive by breaking serve to love, and looked as though she was set to ride her momentum through to an easy finish, and she won five of six points from 2-1 down in the tiebreak to earn three consecutive match points.
Nonetheless, Jabeur saved them all with a little bit of everything - with some clutch serving, a successful Hawk-Eye challenge and a clutch smash winner sprinkled in - and earned herself a match point opportunity when Halep missed a backhand rally ball long for 7-6.
However, the Tunisian proved unable to seal the upset as her forehand deserted her in the match's final stages: the Australian Open quarterfinalist missed a first-ball forehand into the net off Halep's return to knot the tiebreak at 7-7, and missed a near-identical on the next point to give Halep a fourth match point, which the top seed finally converted when the Tunisian's last right-handed stroke soared over the baseline.
"After a long period that I didn't play matches, after that semifinal that I lost in Australia, I'm really happy that I could just fight till the end and to turn it around even if I was leading 4-1. I was down in the tiebreak. But it was a good match," Halep continued.
"In the end, I don't know how I could finish that in a right way. But it was up-and-down a lot because she doesn't give rhythm. It was very weird, but happy I could win."
The match began with an identical opening set, as far as scoreline, to the pair's encounter in Wuhan last fall, which Jabeur won after Halep retired with a back injury.
Using all of her skills, the Tunisian racked up 11 winners - by far the more aggressive of the two, as Halep recorded just two in seven games - and broke serve twice en route to wrapping up the set in under half an hour.
Nonetheless, Halep managed to flip the script in the second set as the Tunisian's game became more erratic, and it was she who broke three times to level the match at one set apiece. Halep sprinted out to the first three games, but was forced to save three break points from 0-40 down at 3-1 en route to winning the set.
"I feel she's a little bit more stronger than last year when we played. I was injured, but I felt her game pretty well at that moment," Halep assessed.
"As I said, it's really tough to read her game because she doesn't give rhythm. She can make unbelievable shots. She can miss a little bit too easy, but she's improving a lot. I'm sure that she can do it better."
The decider began in mirror fashion for the World No.2, as she eased to the first three games and a 3-0 lead. Never challenged in her first three service games of the final set, Halep was broken to love in the seventh game as Jabeur found her way back into the match. The Romanian was two points away from sealing the win in the 10th game, with looks at both 30-30 and deuce on the Tunisian's serve, but Jabeur held firmly to approach her own opportunities to seal victory.
"She played really good. I didn't even have time to think about that game [at 6-5]," Jabeur said. "I knew it's going to be tricky. I mean, I don't think I will so much regret for this game. I served so bad the whole match. It's not like I served good but this one was worse.
"The only thing that's going to replay in my head is match point. I should have been patient more, but then the stress and everything, it wasn't really easy. It's going to hurt for a few days, that's for sure.
"If it was last year, probably I would be happy because I made three sets against Simona Halep. Now, I'm more angry because I didn't win the match. I know I could have. I know I had the level to."
With a spot in the semifinals on the line, Halep will next get another rematch, but one of a very different style. Up next, she will face No.7 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, who beat doubles partner Elise Mertens earlier on Wednesday to book her place in the elite eight.
Halep and Sabalenka played in the quarterfinals of the Adelaide International in January, in a match that was won handily by the Belarusian, 6-4, 6-2.
"Tomorrow is a different match, so I have to forget this one," Halep said. "There is not much to talk about, because she's hitting the ball very strong. In Australia, I didn't touch the ball that much in that match.
"But tomorrow is a new day. I'm different than Adelaide. Hopefully, I can play better."