Halep falls to Badosa in return from doping ban as Sabalenka waits

MIAMI: Paula Badosa spoiled Simona Halep's return from a doping ban, fighting back to claim a gritty 1-6 6-4 6-3 win on Tuesday to move into the second round of the Miami Open and set up what is sure to be an emotion-packed match with Aryna Sabalenka.

Halep had been the player in the spotlight coming into Miami after accepting a wild card when her four-year suspension was cut to nine months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

But the focus quickly shifted to Sabalenka after the world number two's long-time boyfriend, Belarusian former pro ice hockey player Konstantin Koltsov, died in what police said on Tuesday was an "apparent suicide."

While Halep was getting ready to face Badosa, posts on social media showed Sabalenka, who has a first round bye, at work under a hot sun on a Hard Rock Stadium practice court, with the Belarusian scheduled to be on centre court on Thursday or Friday.

Playing her first match since a first round loss at the 2022 U.S. Open, Halep displayed few signs of rust against the 80th ranked Spaniard in a rampaging opening set that saw her break a misfiring Badosa three times as a small but excited crowd chanted "Si-Mon-ah. Si-Mon-Ah." The 32-year-old Romanian spark plug showed she can still make all the shots and had lost none of her trademark terrier like determination running down ball after ball.

But 18 months away from competition was always going to exact a toll.

In the second set it was Badosa taking the initiative as Halep began to show the first signs of fatigue and needed her shoulder massaged at a changeover while the Spaniard held steady to level the match.

The third set turned into a dog fight with Badosa again getting the early break to go ahead 2-1 only to have a battling Halep immediately break back.

But Badosa would continue to apply pressure and break the Wimbledon and French Open winner a second time, the effort leaving the exhausted Romanian slumped over her racquet at the baseline.

With little in reserve, Halep's resistance melted and Badosa moved in for the kill finishing off her opponent with another break.

The spotlight now shifts back to Sabalenka following her boyfriend's death.

The Miami-Dade police department confirmed on Tuesday that they had responded to a call at a Miami resort about reports of a man jumping off a balcony.

"At approximately 12:39 a.m., Bal Harbour Police and Fire Rescue were dispatched to the St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort in reference to a male that jumped from a balcony," the police said.

"The Miami-Dade Police Department, Homicide Bureau, responded and has taken over the investigation of the apparent suicide of Mr. Konstantin Koltsov.

"No foul play is suspected."

The former forward, who was 42, played for the Belarus national team in the 2002 and 2010 Olympics and spent parts of three seasons with the National Hockey League's Pittsburgh Penguins between 2003 and 2006.

Sabalenka and Koltsov were first linked in June 2021, according to People magazine, and she has frequently posted photos of them together on her Instagram account.

"I love you @koltsov2021," she wrote in one post that included heart and other emojis. "Happy birthday my love. You are my dearest person, my best friend and my strongest support. Peace be with you, strength, patience and health.

"I hope we will have everything we planned I love you," she wrote.

Koltsov also applauded Sabalenka after she won her second consecutive Australian Open title in January. -- Reuters

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