PRAGUE, Czech Republic - No.1 seed Simona Halep was made to fight after racing out of the blocks, eventually overcoming Polona Hercog 6-1, 1-6, 7-6(3) in the first round of the Prague Open on her seventh match point after two hours and 31 minutes.
The Romanian, the first Top 10 player to step on court following the resumption of the WTA Tour this month, had expressed reservations at the weekend about her level, saying that she had "always needed matches to find the rhythm". There was little sign of rust at first, as Halep sped to a set and a break lead with immaculate claycourt tennis - but the match would eventually follow the pattern of her previous encounters with Hercog, all three of which had gone to three sets. Indeed, six of the World No.46's last 10 clashes with Top 10 players have now gone the distance - but a second career victory over an opponent in that echelon following her 2012 defeat of Marion Bartoli in Charleston still remains elusive, despite her valiant late-stage battling to save triple match point down 4-5 in the deciding set and another three serving at 5-6.
"I knew it was going to be difficult," said Halep afterwards, referring to her rivalry with Hercog, against whom she played two marathons last year - a 5-7, 7-6(1), 6-2 win in Miami and a 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 win in Eastbourne. (Ten years prior, in the pair's ITF days, Hercog had won their first meeting 7-6(3), 1-6, 6-2 in Sofia in 2009.) "All our matches were very tough and very long," recalled Halep. "She knows me pretty well, we played in juniors. She changes the rhythm, she plays dropshots, a little bit softer then harder, so it was tougher for me to be in the point."
After six months off court since Halep's last tournament appearance - a run to the Dubai title in February - today was both an emotional and physical test. On the former, talking about the new COVID-19 protocol - which in Prague means no fans in the stands - Halep was sanguine. "Emotionally it's not easy, but we have to adjust - we live in tough times," she pointed out. "I'm into it."
Getting used to the rigors of competition was a minor issue, though. "I felt tension in my back after the first set, even though it was short and I played well," admitted Halep. "After the second set, I felt tired. But I knew she was in the same position so I just had to stick to the plan and fight - the fighting helped me to win the match. "Sometimes it's good to call it a good match - but I don't wish for the next one to play three hours!"
The evenness of the contest was borne out in the statistics: both players fired the same number of winners, 29, but Halep kept her error count slightly lower, committing 39 to Hercog's 42. Ultimately, though, it was the two-time major winner's ability to put a plethora of squandered leads behind her to gut out victory that was key.
"I didn't get upset, which I'm very proud of!" laughed Halep about the dramatic close to the match. "I just fought, I knew that if I had those chances I would have another one."
The first set found Halep's point construction as top-notch as ever: the World No.2 used the geometry of the court elegantly and built a number of complex rallies in which she was always a step or two ahead of Hercog, while her fitness in coming through some of the more arduous exchanges was also noteworthy. Only Halep's serve, with three double faults in her first two service games - there would eventually be eight in total - was an issue, though Hercog could not take advantage of either a break point in the first game or five game points to hold in the second. Despite breaking back in the third, Hercog fell away thereafter, racking up 12 unforced errors to only two winners.
"The level was really high in the first set," recalled Halep. "I didn't miss and I found the court very well - I knew where I hit, I knew every ball, I had the touch and the feeling."
Hercog appeared to have found no answers at the start of the second set as she conceded her serve for a fourth time in a row - but it was then, seemingly down and out, that the Slovenian flipped the script. Much of this was due to a reduction in her error count, particularly on cheap rally balls - but a key tactical adjustment also found the dropshot paying dividends. Hercog returned to this well repeatedly as the set drew on - not only well-executed but smartly followed up with neat passes and volleyed lobs - and almost every time was able to out-maneouvre Halep.
"At one point I didn't really know how to run to [the dropshots] and I didn't pick any of them," admitted Halep. "it was a change of rhythm and I struggled a lot with that, but then I started to keep the ball more in play - it was a good balance in the third set."
Hercog also elevated her level of competition, particularly in closing out the set as Halep clung on: the 29-year-old's third break of the set for a 5-1 lead was particularly key, captured after a five-deuce tussle on her third break point. But although Hercog would manage to out-grit the Wimbledon champion that time, as the contest drew into knife-edge territory, it was Halep who demonstrated why she has garnered a reputation as one of the Tour's most resilient battlers.
Drawn-out deuce games and continually threatened service games characterized the deciding set as both players began to compete well at the same time. Though the Hercog dropshot was now proving slightly less effective, the two-time Bastad champion was gamely hanging with Halep from the baseline, with both her injections of pace and defensive improvisation working well. However, few players can counterpunch or find angles quite like Halep - and although the former World No.1 was still unable to find the consistency of the first set, she was able to keep her nose in front thanks to moments of magic like a phenomenal forehand winner on the run in the sixth game.
Nonetheless, Halep found herself continuously pegged back by a valiant Hercog. A 3-1 lead turned into 3-3; even when Hercog squandered a game point to level at 4-4 with a limp double fault and was ultimately broken, the former Roland Garros champion could not serve the win out, with her forehand letting her down too many times. Even after battling her way to triple match point at 5-4 on the Hercog serve with phenomenal defence, Halep could not close it out, failing to get a return in court on any of them. Neither was she able to take a further three match points at 6-5, committing errors on each of them.
But as Hercog finally seemed to have wrested the momentum from Halep, going up 2-1 in the tiebreak with a smooth serve and volley, the Dubai champion showed her mettle. On consecutive points, Hercog found herself at net - but did too little there, with Halep managing to essay two remarkable reflex passes to take control of the scoreboard again. More otherworldly defence would bring up a seventh match point - and finally, this time, it was Hercog who missed first after Halep pummelled a backhand down the line.