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In her opening WTA match of 2021, World No.2 Simona Halep started off her season superbly.
The No.1 seed at the Gippsland Trophy faced a tough test from Russia’s Anastasia Potapova in their first meeting before ultimately prevailing 6-4, 6-4, and claiming a spot in the round of 16 at the WTA 500 event.
"I needed this victory, because I didn’t play an official match since October of last year, so it’s been a long time," a smiling Halep said, during her on-court post-match interview. "I just wanted to feel the court, feel the game. I knew that it was going to be a difficult match, [Potapova] hits very strong."
"It was not easy, but I tried my best, and I’m happy to go through," Halep concluded, as she looks forward to a third-round tilt against either No.16 seed Laura Siegemund of Germany or Australian wildcard Destanee Aiava.
Halep, who recently notched seven uninterrupted years inside the Top 10 of the WTA singles rankings, had 23 winners to Potapova's 17, and an equal amount of unforced errors to her opponent, allowing her to notch her first win of the season after just 78 minutes of play.
World No.101 Potapova, the 2016 junior Wimbledon champion, hung with Halep throughout and held an early break lead in the second set, but she was unable to attain the second Top 5 win of her career (the first was over Angelique Kerber at 2019 Roland Garros).
Halep slammed a return winner on the sideline to break Potapova in the opening game, but any thoughts that the Romanian might steamroll were dashed when Potapova broke back in the very next game. Halep, though, reclaimed her break lead for 2-1, which she never relinquished again as she eased to a one-set lead behind 11 winners, including three aces.
Potapova ramped up her aggressive play in the second set, firing huge returns to earn the early break and lead 3-1. But Halep’s divine defensive skills and depth of shot kept her in good stead as she broke back straight away to prevent the Russian from romping away with the set.
As the second set progressed, Halep chased down everything Potapova threw at her and returned it all with interest, breaking for 5-4 with a forehand winner down the line. An unreturnable serve by the top seed polished off the victory in the very next game.
Svitolina makes it four in a row against Petkovic
No.3 seed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine vanquished a familiar foe on Monday at the Gippsland Trophy, defeating former Top 10 player Andrea Petkovic 6-1, 6-4 for her fourth win in their four meetings.
"It was exciting," Svitolina said about her first match of the Aussie summer, after an opening-round bye. "I knew that [Petkovic] had already won a match here, so I knew that she would come and be really ready straight away, game-ready."
Petkovic pushed Svitolina to three sets in their most recent meeting, at the 2016 Rio Olympics, but World No.5 Svitolina surged through their first clash in over four years to book a third-round spot after one hour and nine minutes of play. Svitolina fired 19 winners to Petkovic's 10 in the encounter.
"I think a few matches in Abu Dhabi helped me get straight into the match, and I started strong," said Svitolina, referring to the season's opening event, where she reached the quarterfinals. "I was striking the ball good and moving quite good. In the end, I was playing quite solid throughout the match and I’m happy with a two-set win."
A marathon game opened the match, as Svitolina had to stare down a whopping six break points before maneuvering to a hold for 1-0. The remainder of the set, though, was much more straightforward for Svitolina, as she claimed the final five games of the opening frame to clinch her one-set lead.
Things got tighter in the second set, with five consecutive breaks of service from 2-2. Serving for the match at 5-4, Svitolina fell behind 0-30, but the Ukrainian rebounded to reel off four points in a row, ending the run of breaks and sealing victory with an ace.
Gauff grits past Teichmann in nail-biter
No.14 seed Coco Gauff of the United States had much more difficulty than Svitolina, as the teenager escaped with a 6-3, 6-7(6), 7-6(5) victory over Jil Teichmann of Switzerland to start her Australian swing.
"Honestly, just being positive mentally," Gauff said was the key to grinding out the win, during her on-court post-match interview. "It was definitely a challenging match I felt like for both of us. I think also all the training I did in the off-season, I was able to go three tough sets and not feel that tired."
A close match seemed to be predestined: only nine ranking spots separate World No.48 Gauff from 57th-ranked Teichmann, and Gauff had contested just one prior match against a left-handed player at main-draw Tour-level, which was a loss to Martina Trevisan at Roland Garros last year.
The stats coming out of the affair were closely matched: each player had 12 break points, while only four winners and three unforced errors set the pair apart from each other.
Gauff, the youngest player in the draw at 16 years of age, took command in the first set by earning break points at 4-3 with stellar returning. The American stormed ahead by converting her second chance after a wide Teichmann backhand. Leading 5-3, Gauff confidently charged to the net, putting away overheads and volleys to claim the first set with a love hold.
An early break for Gauff in the second set was nullified by Teichmann chasing down a dropshot and putting away the winner for 4-4. Teichmann's shots acquired more velocity as the match wore on and the Swiss player was rewarded by eking out the second-set breaker with an error-forcing backhand.
Gauff led 4-1 in the third set before Teichmann stormed back once more to queue up another tiebreak, this one decisive. Another close breaker commenced, which Gauff claimed after two hours and 38 minutes of nail-biting action.
Cornet conquers Tomljanovic to set up Osaka clash
Former World No.11 Alizé Cornet of France was the first winner of the day on Margaret Court Arena, as she overcame Australian hope Ajla Tomljanovic 5-7, 6-1, 6-3 in an entertaining two-hour and 22-minute affair.
“I read my little notes, I have a little book," said a smiling Cornet, explaining the process behind her comeback after the first set during her on-court interview. "I was like, ‘Okay, you have to remind yourself what’s important right now,’ and it was being a little bit more aggressive, go for my shots a little bit more, and move my legs, because without my legs, my game means nothing.
"From the beginning of the second set, it was a totally different match.”
A tricky first set filled with deft net play by both combatants eventually went Tomljanovic's way after a challenging 64 minutes. Cornet, though, dominated the second set to tie up the clash. The Frenchwoman had 10 winners in each of the first two sets, but she had 21 unforced errors in the opener, and only four in her pristine second set.
World No.53 Cornet broke 69th-ranked Tomljanovic in the first and last games of the final set to clinch her second win in three meetings against the Aussie.
Cornet will now face a Top 10 opponent in the second round -- reigning US Open champion and No.2 seed Naomi Osaka of Japan, who spent some time scouting her upcoming opponent.
It will be the first meeting between Cornet and Osaka.
Stat check: Match points denied
Jasmine Paolini of Italy saved two match points in her Gippsland Trophy second-round victory over No.10 seed Wang Qiang of China on Sunday. Wang held a match point at both 5-2 and 5-3 in the second set, but Paolini steered the contest back in her favor to claim a 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 comeback win.
This is the fourth match of the season where a winner has saved match point. The other three were:
-- Abu Dhabi 3rd round - Sofia Kenin def. Yulia Putintseva, 3-6, 7-6(5), 6-4 (saved 1 match point)
-- Abu Dhabi 3rd round - Elina Svitolina def. Ekaterina Alexandrova, 6-2, 6-7(5), 7-6(8) (saved 2 match points)
-- Yarra Valley Classic 1st round - Elisabetta Cocciaretto def. Zhu Lin, 0-6, 6-3, 7-5 (saved 1 match point)
Shot of the Day: Amazing Ajla
Ajla Tomljanovic may have come up just short against Alizé Cornet, but she triumphed in a number of creative rallies during their tilt, including this foray forward which ended with a passing winner.