In arguably the finest match of the Australian Open so far, No.2 seed Simona Halep came from 2-5 down in the third set to beat Ajla Tomljanovic in front of her home crowd, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 in 2 hours and 34 minutes to move into the third round for the fourth year in a row.
The comeback was not new territory for Halep. She had a pair of memorable overtime victories en route to the 2018 final (4-6, 6-4, 15-13 over Lauren Davis in the third round and 6-3, 4-6, 9-7 over Angelique Kerber in the semifinals). Wednesday's result, which clocks in as the fifth-longest match over the first three days of play this year, extends her record in Australian Open three-setters to an impressive 8-3.
While Halep managed to protect her perfect record against the World No.72 on Wednesday, Tomljanovic forced a third set in three of their of their four meetings, this time in front of her home crowd and boyfriend, ATP World No. 10 Matteo Berrettini.
For most of the match, which featured 15 breaks of serve, Tomljanovic went toe-to-toe with one of the game's most formidable baseline battlers without wavering. Striking her forehand with relish and making judicious use of the dropshot, Tomljanovic never let the scoreboard get away. She leaped out to the first substantial lead in the third set after winning one of the best points of the evening.
But Halep would hold firm despite twice coming two points from defeat - and, serving for the win, Tomljanovic blinked momentarily, allowing the former World No.1 to surge through the final five games of the contest. Tomljanovic, who enjoyed a breakthrough at the age of 21 when she upset Agnieszka Radwanska to reach the fourth round of Roland Garros 2014, has yet to score a second Top 5 victory or progress beyond the second round of a major since then, was disconsolate afterwards.
"It's hard, very hard to talk about it right now and see any sort of positives," she admitted. "At the end of the day all I wanted to do was get a win in any way, even if it was the worst tennis ever. I think that's my emotions speaking now. I know it was a high-level match, but in the end I lost, so that's the dominant feeling."
The four-time WTA finalist also acknowledged that "this one feels like maybe if I don't wake up tomorrow and force myself to keep going and put it behind me, it could sting for a while" - but nonetheless eventually lit upon a bright side.
"Three months ago I didn't know if I was capable of playing a match like this, so I think there is a really good way to look at it," Tomljanovic said.
Halep conceded to nerves before the match.
"That's why I was talking non-stop, and I was talking negative," she said. But Halep also said that with her back to the wall down 2-5, she had been able to find the looseness she had been searching for.
"I talked to my team after the match, and they told me that I should have played like I did those games, because my arms were more relaxed and the ball was going a little bit deeper," she said. "I didn't realize that but, you know, it's good that I ended like that and I got the confidence that I still can win these tough matches."
Osaka cruises past Garcia; meets Jabeur next
Naomi Osaka extended her winning streak to a career-best 16 with a 61-minute 6-2, 6-3 victory against World No.43 Caroline Garcia. Osaka struck 23 winners, fired 10 aces and did not face a break point. Osaka, the world No. 3, has not lost a match in 12 months. Since the 2019 US Open, Osaka's overall record is now an astonishing 32-3.
But it was those losses that Osaka admitted have been the turning point.
"There's a lot of stuff that happened surrounding that time that really made me think a lot about my life ... like, am I playing tennis to prove stuff to other people or am I playing to have fun because I enjoy it?" she told press after her first-round win over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
Osaka's next opponent is another played known for having fun on court. No.27 seed Ons Jabeur, who enjoyed a breakthrough here last year by reaching the quarterfinals, while ending former World No.1 Caroline Wozniacki's career, is again finding her form in Melbourne. She beat lucky loser Anna Karolina Schmiedlova 6-3, 6-2 in one hour and seven minutes.
Osaka and Jabeur are on friendly terms already. The football-mad Tunisian has already requested that Osaka recruit her in North Carolina Courage, the National Women's Soccer League team that the 23-year-old part owns, though laughed that she is still "waiting for the contract."
Osaka, meanwhile, recalls Jabeur from the 2015 WTA Rising Stars tournament held alongside that year's WTA Finals in Singapore - both for her game and her personality.
"Ons was the only person that would talk to me," Osaka said, laughing. "She was just super nice and inviting. I remember when I played her there, she was doing these things that I've never seen before - hitting dropshots and then hitting flat-out winners right off the bat. So I was studying her and being very impressed at the same time."
Back then, playing shortened sets in a round-robin exhibition, Jabeur was a 2-4, 5-4(0), 4-1 victor (though Osaka would go on to win the trophy, defeating Garcia in the final). Six years later, the two trailblazers and stars of the game will be competing for a place in the second week of a Grand Slam.
Fernandez, Watson shock former champions Stosur, Zhang
As the doubles competition kicked off at Melbourne Park, rising Canadian teenager Leylah Fernandez joined forces with Heather Watson, her conqueror in last year's Acapulco final, to take out 2019 champions and No.10 seeds Samantha Stosur and Zhang Shuai 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 in the first round. It was the first time Fernandez and Watson had played as a team.
Elsewhere, though, No.2 seeds Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka avoided the upset, coming from a set down to overhaul Cornelia Lister and Alison Van Uytvanck 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 and set up an intriguing second-round date with Ashleigh Barty and Jennifer Brady, who moved past local wildcards Abbie Myers and Ivana Popovic 6-2, 6-4. Other seeded winners included No.9 seeds Alexa Guarachi and Desirae Krawczyk, who needed a match tiebreak to squeeze past two Top 20 singles players, Belinda Bencic and Sofia Kenin, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6, and No.6 seeds Gabriela Dabrowski and Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who defeated Lara Arruabarrena and Kaitlyn Christian 6-2, 6-3 and will now face the charismatic teenage duo Coco Gauff and Caty McNally.