NEW YORK, NY, USA - No.4 seed Simona Halep needed three sets to get past the plucky lucky loser Nicole Gibbs 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 in the first round of the US Open, but raised her level when necessary to come through in one hour and 50 minutes.
Only one player in the Open Era has followed up a victory at Wimbledon with a first-round loss in New York - Petra Kvitova, who fell to Alexandra Dulgheru in 2011 - and Halep began and ended well to avoid that fate. But in between, the Romanian was made to work hard by Gibbs, who is on the comeback trail after being forced to miss Roland Garros and Wimbledon this summer to undergo an emergency operation following a sudden diagnosis of salivary gland cancer.
The American was somewhat slow out of the blocks, with a bunch of errant groundstrokes conceding her first service game, and Halep was keen to press home her advantage. A varied succession of superbly struck forehand winners from all corners of the court characterized her first set, showing off both her shotmaking and her speed in tracking balls down before nailing the pass.
Once Gibbs had settled, though, she proved herself more than capable of having a say in the match. Counterpunching with pinpoint accuracy and choosing her moments to venture into net well, the 26-year-old managed to level the score at 3-3.
It wasn't enough to derail Halep, who continued to hit out freely with her forehand to break Gibbs again and take the last three games of the set - though the final game was something of a mini-classic, with the Wimbledon champion needing five set points to get over the line, which she ultimately did with a backhand winner, her 15th of the opening frame.
Despite falling behind a set, Gibbs was firmly in the match - and perfectly poised to take advantage as Halep's radar went awry in the second set. A flurry of unforced errors set the tone for the 2018 Roland Garros champion, unexpectedly: three put her down an immediate break, and she would rack up 22 in the second set overall. Gibbs, defending doughtily, handed Halep a taste of the medicine she so often doles out to others, continually forcing the 27-year-old to go for too much.
With a double break lead at 4-1, even a gift of a loose service game from Gibbs could not turn the momentum around as Halep continued her error-strewn ways. Only in the penultimate game did the former World No.1 wake up, suddenly finding some of her best tennis to save six set points as Gibbs attempted to serve the set out - but even that was followed by another limp service game from Halep as, undaunted, the former World No.68 finally took her seventh chance by crushing a forehand return.
As had been the case for Gibbs in the second set, though, while Halep may have lost a latter-stage battle for the set, it seemed to play her into the form needed to win the war. Halep emerged for the decider with a renewed focus and rejuvenated forehand, breaking Gibbs in the first and fifth games while dropping only four points behind her own serve.
Throughout the final set, Halep would repeatedly and relentlessly crank up the heat in rallies, using metronomic precision and carefully measured injections of pace to take points from neutral to a level of aggression that Gibbs could not withstand. Reducing her unforced error count to eight, Halep swept towards the finishing line to set up a second-round date against qualifier Taylor Townsend, who came from a set down to defeat Kateryna Kozlova 3-6, 6-3, 6-2.