MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Top seed Simona Halep staved off a spirited challenge from American youngster Sofia Kenin to prevail 6-3 6-7(5) 6-4 in the third round of the Australian Open on Thursday and set up a showdown with former world number one Venus Williams next.
The Romanian has struggled for form and fitness since her first-round defeat at the U.S. Open last August and came into the year’s first Grand Slam short of preparation after a back injury ended her 2018 season prematurely.
She was on a five-match losing streak before the Australian Open and needed all her determination to snap that run in her opening round clash against Kaia Kanepi when she came back from a set and a break down to win 6-7(2) 6-4 6-2.
Halep again had to dig deep against 20-year-old American Kenin, who is ranked 37 in the world and came to Melbourne with a first WTA title under her belt from Hobart last week.
“I think I fought, and I fought hard, and that’s why I could win tonight. It was a very tough one,” Halep told reporters. “She’s very solid. It was really tough to hit winners... I think the level was very high.”
The world number one broke her Moscow-born opponent twice in the first set but Kenin fought back in the second from 3-0 down to level the match at 1-1 in the tiebreak.
Kenin then saved four break points to hold for 1-0 in the deciding set and with momentum in her stride converted her third chance in the sixth game to break Halep for a 4-2 lead.
But Halep, who clutched the back of her right thigh a few times, would not give up and got the set back on serve immediately before taking the crucial break to go up 5-4.
She converted her second match point for the victory that took two hours and 31 minutes.
The next round might not be any easier for Halep, who meets seven-times Grand Slam winner Williams, who beat Frenchwoman Alize Cornet 6-3 4-6 6-0 earlier on the Margaret Court Arena.
Asked to look ahead to her clash with Williams, Halep pleaded with a big smile “not tonight, please” but then said “a little, okay.
“Tough one. But for sure I’m not going to run that much. Because it’s going to finish fast, the points,” she said. “She’s a great player, champion. It’s always a big challenge for me to face the sisters.
“So we will see how I will play, how I’m going to be on court. But I will be confident because I played against her, I know how she plays. I have to be strong.”
The 38-year-old Williams, who like Halep is also currently without a coach, said she had done all the hard work before the tournament and will be ready to face the world number one.
“She’s very consistent on the court and in her results. So throughout the year she’s playing at a really high level. That’s what keeps her ranking up,” Williams said. “She is always winning matches, tournaments.”
Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; editing by Amlan Chakraborty and Ken Ferris