Halep survives first-round scare

 - Dan Imhoff

No.3 seed and defending champ quells Tomljanovic's fightback to reach second round.

Simona Halep© Julien Crosnier / FFT

Grand Slam champions in the women’s draw are having a torrid time of it in their first outings on Court Philippe-Chatrier this year.

Caroline Wozniacki and Angelique Kerber made premature departures before Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka survived anxious three-set scares.

On a cold and windy Tuesday evening, defending champion Simona Halep joined those names on Struggle Street before stymying Australian Alja Tomljanovic’s upset bid, 6-2, 3-6, 6-1.

Unlike the aforementioned slam champs before her, Halep’s struggles came not so much from her end of the court but in weathering the onslaught from a red-lining Tomljanovic in set two.

“The level was great, and actually her level in the second set was really high,” Halep said.

“So I had to be focused more on myself to find out what I have to play better in the third set to be able to win.

“And then I just started to feel that if I make her move, it's a little bit better for me, so I did that. Of course it was not easy because of the emotions, the pressure, but it's always nice to go back on that court.”

Twelve months ago, it was Jelena Ostapenko succumbed to the pressure at the first hurdle in her title defence.

And after the 26-year-old Tomljanovic went on a tear to lock up this contest at a set apiece, there were murmurings about whether Halep would suffer the same fate.

If the 47th-ranked Australian was feeling superstitious, she could well have drawn on good omens, having beaten the No.3 seed at Roland-Garros before – Agnieszka Radwanska in 2014 en route to the fourth round, her best showing at a major.

A gallant fight

She was playing with measured aggression but when she was broken in the opening game of the deciding set momentum was quickly snapped.

Halep was able to breathe easier when she threaded a forehand into the corner to secure the double break and went on to book a second-round meeting with Poland’s Magda Linette at the 97-minute mark.

Halep will draw much confidence from this win. Following Petra Kvitova’s withdrawal, she won’t face a top-10 seed until at least the semi-finals, with No.11 Aryna Sabalenka the highest remaining.

In a season which has the No.3 seed sitting in seventh place for points earned in the WTA Race to Shenzhen thus far, it is clear her form leading in is not quite where it was a year ago.

Part of that, Halep explained, was being happy with her lot. Much has changed in the whirlwind 12 months since.

“Different, for sure,” Halep said. “I have touched the No.1 place two times [at] the end of the year. I have the Grand Slam. So everything, it comes now, it's a bonus. And I see tennis different. I see my life different.

"So I'm happy about everything that’s happening, and… my main goal now is just to see how good I can be this year and maybe a few more years. We will see.”