AO 2.5 - Oh, Simona. Oh, Shuai!
After making the obligatory coaching announcement (Darren Cahill, it's official) at the end of last season, then beginning 2016 making sure to smile, say all the right things about being more free-and-easy and ready to take on the highs and lows of a WTA season -- especially on the pressure-packed big stages at the majors -- and maintaining that her Achilles' injury didn't require surgery and/or a long rest, Halep came into Melbourne as the #2 seed... and proceeded to drop her 1st Round match to qualifier Zhang Shuai, who'd been 0-14 in career main draw slam matches.
And it wasn't really close, either.
Aggressively going for her shots and usually hitting them -- often right down the lines for winners -- Zhang pushed the Romanian back right out of the gate on Tuesday night. She climbed on top of her early, taking a double-break lead and serving for the set at 5-3. She failed to secure that game, but simply broke Halep a game later to complete the process. The '14 Roland Garros finalist took a 3-1 lead in the 2nd, and it seemed as if this might simply be a case of a slow start. But then Zhang roared back to sweep the remaining games in the match, serving once again at 5-3, this time for the match. A forehand down the line on match point -- her 31st winner coming in the evening's 19th game -- crashed Halep out of the early rounds of yet another slam, leaving her as the first Top 2 seed to fall in the Australian Open 1st Round since fellow Romanian (and current Halep manager) Virginia Ruzici lost to Mary Sawyer in 1979.
Halep, who had just eleven winners despite having deceptively respectable statistics on the night otherwise, has now fallen in the first two rounds at three of the last four slams, and her two best major results in the last five were get-me-out-of-here exits vs. Ekaterina Makarova in last year's AO quarterfinals and Flavia Pennetta in the U.S. Open semis.
Halep's plight (and possible rebound) will play out over the entire '16 season, but the real story here, for the next twenty-four hours or so, is the 26-year old, #133-ranked Zhang, finally living a dream in front of millions after a nearly decade-long slam quest. It left both her and her coach in tears.
“I am excited about today, I played so well,” she said. “I think in my life, the best tennis. First win – I’m so happy, so excited. I want to say thank you to my parents, my coach. Thanks you everybody for supporting me.”
Zhang has had a few brief shining moments before. She's won both a tour level singles title and WTA $125K Series event in recent years, and is one of just ten players to have won WTA, WTA 125 and ITF singles titles in their career. At age 20 in 2009, she became the lowest-ranked player to ever defeat a reigning world #1, taking out Dinara Safina in Beijing while at #226 in the rankings. But none of it was of this magnitude. Grand slams are just different animals altogether... a single win can trump so many other accomplishments.
Zhang will next face Alize Cornet in the 2nd Round.
Whoever wins will surely be in tears once again. Just a hunch.
...meanwhile, in the final match on Laver on Night 2, this happened:
ICYMI: Victoria Azarenka breaks out the dab. https://t.co/V4FSP6NniG— OddsShark (@OddsShark) January 19, 2016
Condolences are hereby sent out to Alison Van Uytvanck.
...with the 1st Round complete, Halep's loss provided the record twelfth loss of a seeded woman in the 1st Round of a slam, surpassing the record tied last year at Melbourne.
In all, there are more Bannerettes (8) in the 2nd Round than players from any other nation, but the Americans have just an 8-9 combined record. The Germans (7-3), Russians (6-2), Chinese (4-1), Czechs (4-1) and Spaniards (3-1) have better cumulative marks.
Of course, no nation was worse than Australia (1-8). Not even close, really. The next worst was the 1-3 record put up by the Slovaks.
Finally, for the first time ever, the Chinese women have won Backspin's early-round group "Revelation Ladies" honors (the only previous group win was "Upset Queens" at the '08 U.S. Open). After putting three players through qualifying (including "Last WC Standing" Han Xinyun), the Chinese saw Zhang knock out Halep on Night 2, but also Wang Qiang upset Sloane Stephens and Zheng Saisai defeated Carina Witthoeft. A 4-1 mark is nice, but it's even more significant when you consider it was compiled without the historic Chinese trio of Li Na, Zheng Jie and Peng Shuai, the best players in Chinese tennis history. Is the wave finally arriving?
The Japanese put up a good night for the "RL" mark, with Naomi Osaka and Kurumi Nara advancing. If Misaki Doi had pulled off that near-upset of Angelique Kerber, it might have been an interesting race to the "finish."
Meanwhile, the Russians continue to push through their current NextGen wave, and get the "Upset Queens" win thanks to victories over seeded players by youngsters Daria Kasatkina (def. AK.Schmiedlova), Magarita Gasparyan (Errani) and Elizaveth Kulichkova (Petkovic). Of course, this is nothing new for the Hordettes in Melbourne -- this is the seventh time they won this award!
*MOST SEEDS OUT IN 1st ROUND*
12 - 2016 AUSTRALIAN
11 - 2002 RG, 2004 WI, 2015 AO
10 - 2012 US
9 - 2005 WI, 2015 US
8 - 2002 AO, 2012 WI, 2014 WI, 2001 US
NOTE: 32-seed format began at 2001 Wimbledon
*AO "CRASH & BURN" LOSERS*
2008 Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS (3rd Rd.)
2009 Venus Williams, USA (2nd Rd.)
2010 Maria Sharapova, RUS (1st Rd.)
2011 Jelena Jankovic, SRB (2nd Rd.)
2012 Samantha Stosur, AUS (1st Rd.)
2013 Samantha Stosur, AUS (2nd Rd.)
2014 Petra Kvitova, CZE (1st Rd.)
2015 Ana Ivanovic, SRB (1st Rd.)
2016 Simona Halep, ROU (1st Rd.)
*AO "REVELATION LADIES" WINNERS*
2011 Czech Republic
2013 United States
*AO "UPSET QUEENS" WINNERS*
2007 Czech Republic
*WOMEN'S OVERALL WON/LOST - BY NATION*
[through 1st Rd.]
[Russia & Eastern Europe]
[Western Europe & Scandinavia]
none in main draw
All for Day 2.5 -- more tonight.