Melbourne | Halep outlasts Kerber in thriller
It will be a battle of major proportions when Romania’s top seed Simona Halep meets the second-seeded Dane, Caroline Wozniacki, in the Australian Open final match on Saturday night in Melbourne, with a first major title and World No 1 up for grabs.
This will be the third major final for both women, as well as their first Australian Open final.
I tried to be calm but today I was like a roller-coaster, up and down, If you don't give up, you can win the match in the end. I'm really proud of myself actually. Simona Halep
Halep saved two match points in a thrilling contest over 2016 champion Angelique Kerber to win, 6-3 4-6 9-7, and, at the end, it could not have been closer.
“I tried to be calm but today I was like a roller-coaster, up and down,” Halep observed. “If you don’t give up, you can win the match in the end. I’m really proud of myself actually.”
The classic match didn’t start as such, though, with a nervous and error-prone Kerber offering limited resistance as Halep romped to a 5-0 lead.
The German won the next three games, however, briefly changing the momentum, but was broken again to give Halep the first set in just 25 minutes.
It is not often that a win for a World No1 feels like an upset, but Halep has, when comparing her results at the other Grand Slam events, underperformed at Melbourne Park, and was playing a two-time major winner who was the hottest player in tennis right now, undefeated in 14 matches to begin the 2018 season.
Also, Halep had lost four of their past five matches, all played out in Kerber’s career-best 2016 season.
Then, after letting a 6-3 3-1 lead slip and seeing two match points come and go in the 10th game of the third set, Halep somehow refocused, saved a couple of match points of her own, and eventually closed out the German in two hours, 20 minutes.
From a set and a break down, Kerber had rallied, the gritty, tough German finding her best form despite not playing all that well at times, and knowing she just needed to keep enough balls in the court to prevent Halep getting too comfortable.
Kerber came so close to dropping serve and trailing at 5-3, but she managed to land an off-forehand on the baseline for a winner to save a second break point.
When she slotted a running forehand passing shot up the line to level scores at 4-4, the Rod Laver Arena crowd roared and the match was on.
Becoming increasingly negative, Halep began to leak errors, and hit herself out of the second set into a third.
Kerber opened the decider by breaking serve after two incredible rallies, the second of which, at 22-strokes and featuring every shot in the book, prompted shrieks from the crowd and a standing ovation, to take an early lead.
Halep, undeterred, would later recover from 0-30 down in the seventh game by belting three successive winners to hold for 4-3, and then broke serve to take a 5-3 lead.
Serving for the match, Halep arrived at 30-15, but Kerber came roaring back, eventually winning a stunning 26-stroke rally with a backhand winner that saw her finish on the ground.
With that, she had broken back for 4-5 but would face two match points in the next game, the second of which she saved with another backhand winner.
Kerber embarked on a three-game run that saw her break for 6-5 and serve for the match, but here, it was Halep’s turn to save match points, her penetrating forehands rewarded.
Another searching 16 stroke rally was won by the Romanian, and scores were locked at 6-6.
The pair went game for game on serve until Halep, leading 8-7, arrived at a third match point after coming out on top of another thrilling 18-shot exchange.
Kerber saved that with aggressive play, but couldn’t deny Halep on the Romanian’s fourth opportunity and when she fired a backhand long, a classic was concluded.
The German had seemed to be the more tired during the final set, with Halep forcing the play, being more aggressive and moving Kerber all over the court to eventually edge the win.
“I’m shaking now,” Halep said after the match. “I’m really emotional.
“I’m really glad that I could resist. I had two match balls and I lost them. Today I was like a roller coaster… up and down…. I had confidence in myself.”
Last Saturday, remember, she was pushed to 15-13 in the final set against American Lauren Davis in another epic contest.
She is indeed the marathon woman of the Australian Open.
“I said to myself ‘I will fight for every point and have a big rest after the tournament’,” she added.
She will need to dredge the depths of her energy reserves against Wozniacki if she is to join the Grand Slam winners’ circle after losing two heart-breaking French Open finals.
“If it’s going to come, it’s going to come,” remarked the 26-year-old.
“When I played the final at French Open I said that if I will be in the same situation I will give my best and I will be more courageous and next round I just want to give my best to believe that I have the chance to win.”
Halep’s clash with Wozniacki on Saturday will be a keenly-awaited women’s final.
Seeds have tumbled at various stages in the women’s competition but, at the last, the two best players in the world will fight out for their first major title.
Wozniacki has the edge 4-2 but, in reality, head-to-head records and history will count for nought on Saturday night.
Both players have been to major finals before, including Wozniacki in Melbourne, and both will be acutely aware that such opportunities like this may not present again.
It promises to be a real cracker.