Serena Williams and Simona Halep both made a winning return to competition on Tuesday despite being pushed to three sets….
Serena Williams and Simona Halep both made a winning return to competition on Tuesday despite being pushed to three sets.
WTA Tour events have been suspended since early March due to the global health crisis, and only resumed at last week’s Palermo Open before tournaments in Prague and Lexington, Kentucky began this week.
Top-10 players are now returning to competition for the first time in six months, with Serena Williams and Simona Halep headlining the draws at the inaugural Top Seed Open and the Prague Open respectively.
Both players got their first win since February on Tuesday – but neither of them found it straightforward.
Few players have more experience than Williams when it comes to returning from lengthy spells off court; the 38-year-old has had some extended breaks for injury and has played a limited schedule in recent years, especially since returning from maternity leave in 2018.
But the rust was clear in Lexington on Tuesday, especially in contrast to Williams’s opponent Bernarda Pera. The world no. 60 has been playing World Team Tennis exhibition matches during the lengthy ATP and WTA Tour shutdown, and for much of the first two sets she dominated Williams, keeping her pinned at the back of the court while the world no. 9 struggled vainly to keep her unforced errors under control.
Williams was on the brink of defeat when she trailed 0-40 on her serve at 4-6, 4-4, having failed to consolidate a hard-won break earlier in the set. But one game later, she broke Pera to send the match to a decider. Having taken a 3-1 lead, she saved break point to lead 4-1 and continued to read the Pera serve better and better as the match went on, breaking for 5-1 when Pera, rattled, netted a short forehand and serving out the win.
‘I haven’t played in so long. Even practice matches in training I haven’t played so it was good to go three sets and win a match,’ Williams said.
Williams’s reward will be a second-round clash with either sister Venus or two-time Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka.
World no. 2 Halep, who had played only slightly more recently than Williams, also showed the effects of the lengthy absence from competition as she narrowly survived her first-round match in Prague.
Halep’s last match saw her defeat Elena Rybakina in a third-set tie-break to claim the 20th WTA singles title of her career at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships; 173 days later, she extended her winning streak to five matches, although she found herself dragged to a third-set tie-break once again.
Facing Polona Hercog of Slovenia, a 29-year-old veteran who dragged Halep to a decider twice in 2019 and won their only previous clay-court battle, was never going to be easy. But Halep made it look like it was going to be just that as she breezed through the opening set 6-1 against a stiff Martic. ‘I had the touch and the feeling,’ she said afterwards.
Halep looked like she had never been away, but after she broke to open the second set, the match changed drastically. Halep’s forehand began to misfire and Hercog began to vary the play, and swiftly the Slovenian player ran off six games to level the match.
The third set was an extended tussle which lasted longer than the first two sets combined as the two slogged their way through extended rallies. Halep served for the match at 5-3 but was unable to close out the win – then had a total of six unconverted match points on Hercog’s serve at 4-5 and 5-6 before the third-set tie-break arrived. Hercog had an initial mini-break, but Halep remained tough and lifted her game to eventually secure the win on her seventh match point, 6-1, 1-6, 7-6(3).
Halep told the WTA:
‘I felt tension in my back after the first set, even though it was short and I played well. 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!’
Halep now has a day off from singles, although she is due to play doubles with Barbora Strycova, before facing Barbora Krejcikova, the world no. 118, in the second round on Thursday. They have played once before, with Halep coming back from a set down to beat Krejcikova on clay in Bucharest in 2016.