SYDNEY • World No. 1 Simona Halep remains unfazed despite her preparations for next week's Australian Open suffering a huge setback yesterday when she was bundled out of the Sydney International at the first hurdle.
The Romanian had not played since withdrawing from the WTA Finals in October with a herniated disc, and was no match for fast-rising Australian Ashleigh Barty, who won 6-4, 6-4 to record the biggest win of her career.
Halep, the reigning French Open champion and 2018 Australian Open runner-up, had a bye through to the second round, meaning she heads to Melbourne Park for the opening Grand Slam of the year with just one match under her belt.
"It was a great match after almost four months (out). I think I played a good level of tennis, but I had no inspiration in some important points," said the 27-year-old.
"She played really well and deserved to win. But I was also very close to winning. No pain at all (in my back), that is a great sign."
Earlier in the week, Halep admitted the back injury that ended her 2018 season early was "very scary".
The early finish to 2018 was a disappointing end to a spectacular season, which saw her secure the year-end No. 1 ranking for the second year running.
She had a stellar start last year, reaching the Australian Open final and going on to win the Shenzhen Open, Rogers Cup and her first Grand Slam title at Roland Garros.
Barty, who ended a breakthrough 2018 with a WTA title in Zhuhai and is now ranked 15th, advanced to the quarter-finals.
She had already accounted for another French Open winner, Jelena Ostapenko, in the opening round and had an extra gear against Halep, breaking serve twice to win the first set.
Halep, who split with Darren Cahill last year and does not intend to employ a new coach for the first half of this season, was first to break in the second set and had a chance to hold for 5-3.
But Barty used her signature court craft to break straight back and secure victory two games later.
"It was extremely difficult conditions, very swirly down at court level. So I figured if I'm going to play Simona anytime, it was now. I was very happy to make the most if it," said the 22-year-old.
"I had nothing to lose out here so I just came out and played with freedom. I believed I could win."