World number one Simona Halep's preparations for next week's Australian Open suffered a huge setback Wednesday 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 game under her belt.
"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 said.
"She played really well and deserved to win. But I was also very close to winning. "No pain at all, that is a great sign," she added of her back. "The tennis is good, I just have to believe in myself more."
Barty, who ended a breakthrough 2018 with a WTA title in Zhuhai and is now ranked 15, brought the momentum into the new year and is now in the quarter-finals, where she will meet either Belgian 10th seed Elise Mertens or Estonian Anett Kontaveit.
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. "It was extremely difficult conditions, very swirly down at court level.
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