World No. 1 Halep stunned in Sydney
Top-ranked women's player bundled out by Barty on her return from back injury
World No. 1 Simona Halep's preparations for next week's Australian Open suffered a huge setback yesterday when she was bundled out of the Sydney International at the first hurdle.
The Romanian hadn't played since withdrawing from the WTA Finals in October with a herniated disc, and was no match for fast-rising Australian Ashleigh Barty, who scored the biggest win of her career 6-4, 6-4.
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.
She said: "It was a great match after almost four months (since the last one). I think I played a good level of tennis but I had no inspiration in some important points.
"She played really well and deserved to win. But I was also very close to winning."
Barty, who ended a breakthrough 2018 with a WTA title in Zhuhai and is now ranked 15, brought the momentum into the new year.
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, without a coach after splitting with Darren Cahill who wanted to spend more time with his family, was first to break in the second set and had a chance to hold for 5-3.
But Barty was undaunted, using her signature court-craft to break straight back and secure victory two games later.
"I had nothing to lose out here so I just came out and played with freedom. I believed I could win," said Barty.
Halep admitted earlier in the week that the back injury which curtailed her 2018 season was "very scary", but said yesterday she had recovered but just needs more self-belief.
The early finish to 2018 was a disappointing end to a spectacular season, which saw the 27-year-old secure the year-end No. 1 ranking for the second year running.
She got off to a stellar start, reaching the Australian Open final and went on to win the Shenzhen Open, the Rogers Cup and her debut Grand Slam crown at Roland Garros.
American world no. 5 Sloane Stephens was another casualty yesterday. She narrowly escaped defeat in the first round, and slumped out to Kazak qualifier Yulia Putintseva 3-6, 7-6 (7/4), 6-0, meekly surrendering in the final set.
In other matches yesterday, Switzerland's Timea Bacsinszky beat Australia's Sam Stosur 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 and will meet Aliaksandra Sasnovich of Belarus in the last eight.
In the men's draw, third seeded Argentinian Diego Schwartzman booked his place in the quarters by beating Spain's Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in two sets.
He will next face Japanese qualifier Yoshihito Nishioka.
Italian Andreas Seppi is also through to meet top seed Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, while fifth-seeded Alex de Minaur set up an all-Australian last-eight tie with Jordan Thompson. - AFP
Trick-shot Tomic confuses Kyrgios
Bernard Tomic secured a controversial-yet-comical victory in an exhibition match against compatriot Nick Kyrgios at the Kooyong Classic yesterday when the Australian hit an ace on match-point with an underarm serve from behind his legs.
Serving for the contest in the second set, Tomic moved into his service stance before chipping one ball over the net while still bouncing another, catching Kyrgios, the umpire and spectators completely off guard as he won 6-3, 6-4.
Kyrgios laughed and shook his head in disbelief. - REUTERS
McEnroe: Tough time for Murray
Former world No. 1 Andy Murray is unlikely to last long at the Australian Open and playing pain-free would be a victory for the Scot, according to John McEnroe.
Murray, 31, returned to action last June, but the three-time Grand Slam winner has won only eight matches since. He admitted he still has pain from his hip and was not sure how much longer his career will last.
McEnroe told the Daily Mail: "I'd imagine he is just trying to get through without being in a lot of pain, so that would be sort of a victory." - REUTERS
Isner, Ferrer tumble out in Auckland Classic
Top seed John Isner crashed out of the Auckland Classic yesterday, while a calf injury dashed four-time champion David Ferrer's hopes of a fairytale final appearance in New Zealand.
Isner was sent packing after fellow American Taylor Fritz held his nerve in two tie-breaks to win 7-6 (7/3), 7-6 (7/5), while Ferrer called it quits just three games into his match with fellow Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta.
Former world No. 3 Ferrer has retired from Grand Slams but is making a few appearances at his favourite ATP tournaments in 2019, with Auckland first on the list.
"It's disappointing, but I've had very good memories here," Ferrer said. - AFP