NEW YORK (REUTERS) - Romania's twice Grand Slam winner Simona Halep outlasted Kazakhstan's Elena Rybakina 7-6(11) 4-6 6-3 in a dramatic third-round showdown at the US Open on Friday (Sept 3).
Twelfth seed Halep saved four set points before converting on her seventh courtesy of a double fault by Rybakina in an epic, 18-minute first-set tiebreak in front of a rapt and roaring crowd inside Louis Armstrong Stadium.
Rybakina fired back and built a two-break lead through the first three games of the second set, taking a medical timeout after the fifth to have her left foot taped, while Halep received a shoulder massage with the lead narrowed to 3-2.
Rybakina broke again in the ninth game, helped by one of Halep's three double faults in the second set, before closing it out in the next game with an ace, one of her 14 in the match, months after she reached the quarter-finals of a major for the first time at Roland Garros.
After sitting on the sidelines between sets, a renewed Halep wrested the momentum in the third, cleaning up her form significantly with only six unforced errors compared to 30 in the previous two sets and winning 85 per cent of her first-serve points.
"It's been a very tough match," said Halep after reaching the fourth round at Flushing Meadows for the first time since 2016. "I knew I had to be strong, I knew I had to be calm."
The match was reminiscent of their roughly two-and-a-half-hour epic in the Dubai final a year ago, and was a positive sign for Halep, who withdrew from the Western & Southern Open last month citing a thigh injury and opted out of the Tokyo Games due to a calf injury.
"I just go day by day. Now I feel stronger. Every match I feel stronger, because the body kind of goes back where I have been," said Halep. "So now I feel more confident with my muscles and stronger also on the legs."
She told reporters she was "super stressed" before the match and worried that her forehand was "lost," but put aside her concerns to fire off a dozen forehand winners during the two-hour and 25-minute clash.
"This victory gives me a lot of confidence that my game is coming back and also the fighting spirit is there. So I feel safer on court when I step now," she said.
"I know that every match is a battle, but I'm there, and if I'm healthy, I'm confident that I can play my game."