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By Adrianna Outlaw | Tuesday, August 1, 2017

simona Halep

Simona Halep reeled off six of the last seven points in the tie break igniting a 7-6 (3), 6-0, victory over Sloane Stephens that sent her into the second round in Washington, DC.

Photo credit: Ashley Western/CameraSport

Continuing her chase of the No. 1 ranking, Simona Halep was a decisive front-runner today.

In a clash of wild cards, Halep reeled off six of the last seven points in the tie break igniting a 7-6 (3), 6-0, victory over Sloane Stephens that sent her into the second round in Washington, DC.

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“I’m happy that I could win today,” Halep told Tennis Channel’s Justin Gimelstob. “It wasn’t an easy match against Sloane Stephens, who is always tough to play. I’m enjoying the heat, actually. It’s not easy, but it’s okay."

Contesting her first match since she fell to Johanna Konta in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, Halep raised her 2017 record to 31-9.

“It was not easy in the first set because I did not have the rhythm and she did some good strokes," Halep said. "Always when I win the first set I concentrate for the first few games and if I take the lead, it’s much better. But still at this level if you don’t finish the last point the match is not over.”

Playing just her second match of the season, Stephens stayed in step for much of the first set.

The top-seeded Romanian broke first for 3-1. Stephens answered breaking right back in the fifth game when Halep netted a forehand.

Stephens' serve bailed her out of trouble in the eighth game.

The 2015 Washington, DC champion fought off five break points varying the location of her serve shrewdly holding for 4-all.

Deadlocked at 5-all, Halep withstood a tense game in which she littered a pair of double faults and slapped a backhand into net to face a break point. Halep hit a probing serve to deny it, eventually coming through a hard-fought hold for 6-5.

Following a visit from coach Darren Cahill, Halep earned set point when Stephens scattered a backhand. Stephens carved out a courageous backhand drop shot to save it.

Competitive rust was evident when Stephens planted a forehand into the middle of the net to confront a second set point. Halep found the top of the tape and could not convert.

Sidelined for the first six months of the season with a foot injury, Stephens has played World TeamTennis in recent weeks. She said living life off the pro circuit "was weird" and reinforced her desire to return.

"I think I’ve played a certain way for a long time," Stephens said. "To make errors that I normally wouldn’t make—even though I haven’t played in a year—is still very frustrating.

"So I think it was more why did I miss that shot… It was just hard. Coming back, you don’t know what to expect from yourself. I didn’t play badly. I played the number two in the world. I played a good first set. It’s just frustrating the stuff you have to deal with."

Trailing 1-2 in the tie break, Halep exploited a string of Stephens errors racing through six of the final seven points to snatch the opening set in 54 minutes.

Despite serving just 40 percent and converting only one of eight break-point chances, Halep kept calm on pivotal points.

That was the beginning of the end for a frustrated Stephens, who called for coach Kamau Murray and spent much of the ensuing changeover griping over lost opportunity.

A disconsolate Stephens surrendered serve at love to start the second set and never recovered.

Dancing around her backhand, Halep punished a forehand return winner down the line scoring her third consecutive break for 5-0.

The two-time French Open finalist will play Mariana Duque-Mariño  for a quarterfinal spot.  Duque-Mariño defeated Shelby Rogers, 6-4, 6-1. 

Halep trails Karolina Pliskova by 981 ranking points for the world No. 1 ranking, but she's taking a philosophical approach in the race for the top spot.

"In my opinion I am close to number one, but still far because I lose points and I win points," Halep said. "It’s one of my goals to get to number one, but I’m not thinking anymore because I did that at French Open and Wimbledon I was so close. I just want to take it match by match and not think about it."


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