Halep Fit and Focused For Deep Run At Australian Open

Simona Halep (photo: Australian Open video)

MELBOURNE/WASHINGTON, January 20, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

Simona Halep is healthy, fit and focused – and ready to make a deep run after reaching the Australian Open final in 2018. She’s fared no worse than advancing to the fourth round in each of her past four trips to Melbourne.

The look of passion and desire on the 14th seed’s face was evident as she easily won 6-4, 6-0 over Beatrix Haddad Maia of Brazil in 66 minutes on Rod Laver Arena to close out Thursday’s play on Melbourne Park’s biggest show court just before midnight.

Halep hit 15 winners to just 12 unforced errors. The former World No. 1 from Romania faced no break points on her serve while breaking her opponent five times. She outpointed Haddad Maia 56-32 and took advantage of the 25-year-old Brazilian’s 22 unforced errors.

It added up to a comprehensive performance that has advanced the two-time Grand Slam champion Halep into Saturday’s third round. It was also Halep’s 30th career Australian Open triumph.

“It was a little bit difficult to stay here all day and wait,” Halep admitted during her on-court interview. “Actually, there was a good match before me.”

Halep, of course, was referring to the earlier match on Rod Laver Arena between World No. 2 Daniil Medvedev and Australia’s mercurial Nick Kyrgios, who battled for nearly three hours and four sets that was won by the Russian 7-6 (1), 6-4, 4-6, 6-2. “I enjoyed it a lot. It motivated me to be focused and play some good tennis, which I think I did,” she said.

Shifting focus back to her own match, Halep was all smiles when she said: “It was a great match. I don’t think I played bad. I was very aggressive and I did what I had to do.”

After winning the Melbourne Summer Set 1 two week ago, her 23rd WTA title, Halep is riding a seven-match winning streak and has won 13 of her past 14 matches going back to her run to the final at Cluj-Napoca last October. She’s only lost one set since arriving in Australia.

Now, after missing two Grand Slams in 2021 due to injuries, the World No. 15 Halep said it’s extra special to be healthy again and to enjoy playing. “Definitely, I enjoy tennis more. I’m 30, so I’m old enough to still enjoy this sport. I like it.

“I’m more relaxed more,” Halep added. “Last year was not easy with injury; I had to stay away three or four months. I suffered, but I have come back stronger. Now, I’m ready to work harder and to play some good matches here.”

Next, Halep will face No. 98 Danka Kovinic of Montenegro, who took out 17th seed and reigning US Open champion Emma Raducanu of Great Britain, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, on Margaret Court Arena earlier Thursday evening.

Kovinic, 27, had lost in the second round in each of her six previous major appearances. However, she wrapped up her fourth career Top-20 win – and first in a Grand Slam setting – as the 19-year-old Raducanu was hampered by blisters on her right hand that made it difficult to grip her racquet.

“Because 21 days, no tennis, my hands got pretty soft,” Raducanu said after the match, just her third of the season after recovering from COVID-19. “It ended up being pretty deep. But it’s a bit annoying, because I knowit’s something that will heal in a few days – just unfortunate timing.”

Statement win by Medvedev over Kyrgios

Second seed Daniil Medvedev of Russia, the highest-remaining seed after the withdrawal of World No. 1 Novak Djokovic on the eve of the Australian Open, defeated Nick Kyrgios of Australia for the first time Thursday evening.

The Rod Laver Arena crowd – largest and loudest of the fortnight so far – came for some exciting and entertaining tennis, and for almost three hours, both Medvedev and a pumped-up Kyrgios delivered with the World No. 2 finally prevailing, 7-6 (1), 6-4, 4-6, 6-2, to advance to Saturday’s third round against No. 57 Botic van de Zandschulp of the Netherlands, who won by retirement over France’s Richard Gasquet, leading 4-6, 6-0, 4-0.

While Medvedev had lost in the past two meetings with Krygios, this time he slammed 31 aces and whacked 68 winners against the 113th-ranked Australian wild card, who countered with 17 aces and 47 winners of his own. It all added up for the Russian, who kept Kyrgios tempered with his consistent flat groundstrokes.

“I came to win this match and I am happy I managed to do it,” Medvedev said during his on-court interview with Jim Courier, which drew some boos from the crowd. “It was a funny match because we both served big. In the second and fourth sets, I managed to return a little bit more at crucial moments. I just want to play my best, hit good shots and hopefully that will be enough to do something big.”

Medvedev admitted that it’s tough matching up with Kyrgios. “I know he can serve big, and that’s already really tough,” he said. “I felt like I was returning really well today and yet to break him it was really tough. But these kind of matches, first, second, third round of a slam, it’s a big challenge where if you make it, you [say] ‘Okay, if I can continue playing like this, I can go far.’”

With his second straight-set win, Medvedev has now improved to 15-1 in hard-court majors matches at the Australian Open and US Open the past two years.

Meanwhile, Kyrgios, who was going after his first Top-5 win since 2019, thought the Rod Laver Arena atmosphere “was awesome.” During his post-match press conference, he said: “That’s what sport is. You’ve got the most entertaining player playing in his home slam on Rod Laver. You’d expect the crowd to be like that. I can understand it’s a gentleman’s game, but it’s about time that people embraced some sort of different energy in this sport. Otherwise, it will die out. It’s just that simple.

“We all know people can doubt me as much as they want but they know I’m going to turn up and show up for matches like this. That’s why the crowd is the way it is, that’s why the tickets are the way they are. That’s why the views are the way they are. It all speaks for itself.”

Tsitsipas, Rublev, Sinner continue their winning ways

World No. 4 and fourth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece learned that Argentina’s NextGen star Sebastian Baez is more than just a clay-court player during their first head-to-head encounter Thursday afternoon. He was pushed hard by the 21-year-old. However, Tsitsipas used his big-match experience to his advantage – raising his level in the third and fourth sets – to beat the 88th-ranked Baez, 7-6 (1), 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-4, in three hours and 22 minutes on Margaret Court Arena to advance to the third round for the fourth straight year.

Tsitsipas hit 12 aces and 44 winners overall but also committed 63 unforced errors, while Baez countered with five aces of his own to go with 35 winners and 48 unforced errors. The Greek rising star showed no signs of elbow discomfort against Baez, which had kept him sidelined during the Nitto ATP Finals in November and limited his participation in the recent ATP Cup.

“It wasn’t easy, but I am glad I overcame that obstacle today,” Tsitsipas said during his on-court interview. “Lots of fighting, a little bit of swearing, but I am glad to be in the third round. It was a pretty hot day today, but I tried to play with my heart and it paid off in the end.

Asked about Baez, Tsitsipas called him a great player. “I know he had a good run at the Next Gen Finals, which is an event I played a few years ago,” he said. “So, in order for him to playing at these tournaments is an indication he has been doing well. He has one of the biggest forehands I have faced.”

Next, Tsitsipas will play No. 56 Benoit Paire of France, who advanced to the third round for the first time in five years after he upset No. 26 seed Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (2), who won 35 of 44 net approaches.

Also, No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev of Russia made quick work of No. 93 Ricardas Berankis from Lithuania, winning 6-4, 6-2, 6-0, in back of 13 aces and 32 winners. Meanwhile, No. 11 seed Jannik Sinner of Italy took care of No. 84 Steve Johnson of the United States, 6-2 6-4, 6-3, with a steady performance that included 11 aces and 29 winners to just 15 unforced errors to close out Thursday’s action on Margaret Court Arena.

Other winners moving into the third round: No. 9 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada; No. 15 seed Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain; No. 20 seed Taylor Fritz of the United States; 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic of Croatia, who is seeded 27th; No. 32 Alex de Minaur of Australia; and 173rd-ranked Australian wild card Christopher O’Connell, who upset No. 13 seed Diego Schwartzman in straight sets. No. 24 seed Dan Evans of Great Britain advanced by walkover against injured No. 58 Arthur Rinderknech of France.

Murray disappointed in loss to Daniel

In his return to the Australian Open, Andy Murray gutted out a five-set, three-hour and 52-minute thriller to beat No. 21 seed Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia in the first round Tuesday on John Cain Arena that brought the fans to their feet. On Thursday, the 113th-ranked Murray wasn’t able to recapture the magic from two days earlier. The former World No. 1 from Great Britain converted just two of 11 break points against 120th-ranked qualifier Taro Daniel of Japan and lost 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 in two hours and 48 minutes, also on John Cain Arena.

“This is a really important year for me for a number of reasons,” Murray said in press following his second-round defeat, “and I want to perform well in the big events. For me, tonight is not good enough in that respect. Making the second round of Slams is not something I find motivating. I want to be doing better than that.”

While Daniel accounted for 12 aces and hit 45 winners, Murray committed 49 unforced errors and his serve was broken five times. He was outpointed 114-92.

Murray admitted that his body had held up well over the past 10 days, which began with a run to the finals of last week’s Sydney Tennis Classic. “I felt all right today, physically,” he said. “I pulled up pretty well from the [Basilashvili] match the day afterwards. From that respect, I was actually quite happy considering the situation.”

While Murray praised Daniel and said he deserving of the win against him, he noted that for all the progress he had made physically over the past several months it simply hurt to lose. “I’m really disappointed,” he said. “A tough loss for me. That’s for sure.”

Murray said he will return home to the U.K. to rest and spend time with his family. He expects to return to the ATP Tour for upcoming tournaments in Doha and Dubai next month.

Plenty of Day Four surprises in women’s draw

There were plenty of surprises on Day Four of the Melbourne fortnight that took place under cloudless, bright blue skies at Melbourne Park – and they started early in the day, when No. 3 seed Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain became the highest-seeded player to lose in the women’s draw. It came just minutes after No. 6 seed Anett Kontaveit lost, too.

Muguruza, a two-time major champion as well as a two-time finalist including two years ago at the Australian Open, made 33 unforced errors and didn’t earn any break points in her 6-3, 6-3 loss to Alizé Cornet of France, who was appearing in her 63rd career Grand Slam event – and 60th consecutive – but has never advanced beyond the fourth round. It was an early birthday gift for Cornet, who turns 32 on Saturday, when she will play her third-round match against 29th seed Tamara Zidansek of Slovenia, who defeated Great Britain’s Heather Watson, 7-6 (4), 6-4.

“I don’t know how many years I have left,” Cornet said. “Today was a perfect gift I could give myself, and I really hope the journey’s going to go even further for me.”

During her press conference, Muguruza said she was “a little bit surprised” by her level of play. The World No. 3 Muguruza, who won the season-ending 2021 WTA Finals over Kontaveit in Mexico, said. “I am a little disappointed, too. I feel like my shots weren’t as accurate and precise. I feel, also, my aggressive game wasn’t that aggressive today.”

Meanwhile, Kontaveit, a four-time WTA Tour winner since last August, fell to 19-year-old Clara Tauson of Denmark, 6-2, 6-3, on Margaret Court Arena. A former junior champion, the fearless Tauson was as surprised as anyone with her win. “I just went in there believing I could win, but it wasn’t like I have to win,” she said. “It was more, ‘I can win, but we’ll see what happens.’”

Next, Tauson will debut in the third round of a major for the first time against 2019 Australian Open semifinalist Danielle Collins of the United States. The 27th-seeded American took out No. 58 Ana Konjuh of Croatia, 6-4, 6-3.

Elsewhere, World No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus overcame a dozen double faults in the first set and 19 overall to pull out a 1-6, 6-4, 6-2 win over 100th-ranked Wang Xinyu of China. Sabalenka showed she had just enough weapons to win “even if you can’t serve,” as she noted after the match. Next, Sabalenka faces No. 31 seed Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic, who beat No. 37 Liudmila Samsonova of Russia, 6-2, 7-5.

Other winners included: No. 7 seed and 2020 French Open champion Iga Swiatek of Poland; No. 19 Elise Mertens of Belgium; No. 25 seed Daria Kasatkina of Russia; No. 38 Sorana Cirstea of Romania and 133rd-ranked Australian wild card Maddison Inglis. No. 12 seed Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan retired from her match against No. 74 Zhang Shuai of China, trailing, 6-4, 1-0.

Stosur couldn’t have asked for more

Tenth seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia ended the singles career of Australia’s Samantha Stosur, 6-2, 6-2. The 2011 US Open champion was playing in her 20th and last Australian Open as a singles player. She will now devote full time to playing doubles.

“I’ve done more than I ever thought possible,” Stosur told the crowd during a post-match interview in Kia Arena. “I dreamed of winning a Grand Slam [singles title], and I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

By the numbers

• Thursday’s Day Four attendance at Melbourne Park reached 30,102, the highest of the week.

• Danka Kovinic, who defeated Emma Raducanu of Great Britain, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 became the first player from Montenegro to reach the third round of a Grand Slam.

• Andy Murray’s loss to 120th-ranked qualifier Taro Daniel of Japan was the first to a player outside the Top 100 in a Grand Slam. He was 35-0 prior to losing 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 to Daniel in Thursday’s second round.

• There are 22 men’s and 20 women’s seeds remaining as third-round play commences on Friday.

“Quotable …”

“Even if it was against me, I was trying to steal this energy within my body.”

Taro Daniel of Japan, on the crowd at John Cain Arena after he defeated Andy Murray.