Simona Halep, the World No 1, joined the ranks of the come-back kids when she survived a marathon battle with Lauren Davis at the Australian Open on Saturday.
“I’m almost dead but it was nice that we could show good tennis,” Halep said in the on-court interview, raising a laugh from the crowd after winning arguably the best match of the championships thus far, a record-equalling 48-game, almost four-hour third-rounder, 4-6 6-4 15-13.
Definitely it was a very tough match, so long, and I never played the third set so long. I just feel that my muscles are gone. My ankle is -- I don’t know how it is because I don’t feel it any more. Simona Halep
In the process Halep saved three match points before securing an epic triumph in the third set of her match against her American opponent.
Their three-hour, 44-minute marathon equalled the longest-ever Australian Open women’s match in terms of games, matching the 48-game epic played by Chanda Rubin and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in 1996, won by Rubin, 16-14 in the third.
In terms of time, it was the third-longest ever in an Australian Open women’s match, although it remains in the shade of the four-hour, 44-minute battle between Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova in 2011, which stands as the longest-ever Grand Slam women’s match.
The Romanian fought back from the brink at 11-10 in the epic final set before serving out the match on the fourth attempt at Rod Laver Arena.
A former quarter-finalist at Melbourne Park, Halep closed out the epic on her first match point, when 76th-ranked American Davis, who had gone for broke all match, fired into the tramlines, her 73rd unforced error.
”Definitely it was a very tough match, so long, and I never played the third set so long.
“I just feel that my muscles are gone. My ankle is — I don’t know how it is because I don’t feel it any more.”
Davis, a baby-faced 24-year-old with a monster forehand, was majestic in defeat, breaking Halep three times when the Romanian served for the match and battling on after losing a toenail late in the game.
“It got to the point where I was so tired, I told myself to swing and move,” said Davis. “For the most part, it was very effective.”
She came within an inch of the biggest win of her career when she swooped forward to pounce on a speculative drop-shot and whipped a passing shot to earn three match points at 11-10.
Halep nervelessly saved them all, winning five points in a row for a galvanising hold before Davis removed her shoe and walked gingerly to her chair.
She took a medical timeout, stalling Halep’s momentum, and the Romanian fumed on the baseline as a trainer worked on Davis’s toe.
With Davis hobbled slightly, Halep moved in for the kill but the American saved five break points to frustrate her, and later thanked the net cord for helping her hold again at 12-12.
Halep finally breached Davis’s serve at 14-13, and edged a 17-shot rally to come within two points of victory.
Apparently spent, Davis swung hard in a desperate late flurry but missed twice, a forehand sailing just wide to allow Halep to continue her bid for a long-awaited maiden Grand Slam title.
“I think in the past I would not have fought that hard,” Halep said. “When she had those match [point] balls, I may have lost.”
The 26-year-old will meet Japan’s Naomi Osaka for a place in the quarter-finals, having carried her injured ankle through a deciding set of 142 minutes.
The Romanian said she had never played such a long match, nor recovered from three match points down ever before: “The big win is that I can handle it,” she said.
Exhausted, she said her ankle continued to bother her: “I don’t know how it’s going to be. The doctor said there’s a risk, because it’s an injury, but I think it’s going to be fine.”
Only 6 of the top 16 seeds remain in the women’s draw.
Eighth-seed Caroline Garcia of France and No 6 seed Karolina Pliskova of Czech Republic both advanced, Garcia beating Aliaksandra Sasnovich in three sets and Pliskova triumphing over Lucie Safarova in two.
A combination of epically long matches and television demands forced a questionable decision by Australian Open officials, which may have hurt Ashleigh Barty’s chances of advancing in the tournament.
The match was initially scheduled as the third contest on Rod Laver Arena, but with the first match between Halep and Davis lasting nearly four hours and the second between Alexander Zverev and Hyeon Chung also going the distance, tournament officials moved the match to Margaret Court Arena, the next freely available court.
There, Japan’s Naomi Osaka, American-raised and unseeded, overpowered the young Aussie, 6-4 6-2, to reach the fourth round of a Grand Slam for the first time, leaving the host nation without a contender for the Australian Open women’s title.
Barty’s quantum leap from the outside the top 200 to No 17 in the world rankings over the last year had given some in Australia hope that the former cricketer might be a contender to end their 40-year wait for a women’s champion.
Osaka shredded those hopes in 73 minutes, breaking Barty to open both sets and combining 12 aces, the last on match point, with 24 winners in a ruthless display of power tennis.
The move from Rod Laver Arena may have favoured Osaka, according to Channel 7 commentator Rennae Stubbs, based on Barty having played on centre court before in this event.
“Ash has handled herself so beautifully on Rod Laver. If it is anything about moving the court, it certainly helps Osaka more than Ash,” Stubbs said at the start of the match.
“Ash has played both matches on Rod Laver. Osaka, it doesn’t matter where she is playing on, she’s just going to hit the ball huge.”
Osaka acknowledged the change may have helped her in her post-match interview.
“I think there would have been a lot more people cheering for her [in Rod Laver Arena], so thank you,” she said.
Barty did not comment on the decision as she delayed her press commitments until after the completion of her doubles match with partner Casey Dellacqua, which was scheduled to begin at 8:15pm.
Osaka gained the opening break of the match and it appeared to give her confidence, as she played near her powerful best.
An unavoidable side effect of the move from Rod Laver Arena to the MCA was on attendees.
Centre court ticket holders were allowed entry into the new home for the match but on a first-come first-serve basis and with existing ticket holders also in the building, lines were long and many were not allowed in.
Some fans then went to social media to complain about the tournament’s messaging of the change, which was on short notice.
The 20-year-old Japanese, who is ranked 72nd and beat defending champion Angelique Kerber at the US Open last year, will next face Halep for a place in the quarter-finals.
Of the two remaining Americans in the women’s draw, only Madison Keys survived to keep the stars and stripes flying.
The Croatian-born Bernada Pera, the lucky loser who dispatched Britain’s Johanna Konta in round two, was summarily dismissed by Barbora Strycova, the 20th Czech seed, 6-2 6-2.
Keys advanced 6-3 6-4 over Ana Bogdan and will next play No 8 Caroline Garcia, who beat Sasnovich, 6-3 5-7 6-2.
The 17th-seeded Keys missed last year’s Australian Open after undergoing surgery to repair her injured left wrist, and played only one match after losing the US Open final to Sloane Stephens before shutting down her season early.
“As amazing as that run was, the combination of being exhausted from that and having a wrist that still wasn’t 100 percent perfect, I just needed to kind of shut it down, calm down,” she said. “And then I was really excited to start the new season.”
Yet to drop a set through her first three matches, Keys’ powerful serve and groundstrokes wore down the inexperienced Bogdan, playing in her maiden Grand Slam third round.
“But she was also getting to a lot of balls and definitely made me play my best tennis,” said Keys, who made a run to the 2015 Open semi-finals as a teenager.
Her next opponent, the 24-year-old Frenchwoman Garcia, was pushed all the way by Belarusian Aliaksandra Sasnovich, but ground out a 6-3 5-7 6-2 victory after two hours and five minutes on Hisense Arena.
Garcia, twice a title winner on tour last year, has spent exactly double the amount of time on court as Keys through the first week.
“I know its going to be big hitting from both sides,” Garcia said ahead of her maiden fourth-round clash at Melbourne Park.
“I haven’t played very well last match, so I really want to improve against her.”
Sixth seed Karolina Pliscova, another hoping to break through for her first major in Melbourne, inched past compatriot Lucie Safarova in a tight 7-6(6) 7-5 tussle, firing 11 aces on the way.
The only break of the all-Czech encounter came in the penultimate game of the second set, before Pliskova killed off the 29th-seeded 30-year-old veteran.
“I know the record is pretty good,” the 25-year-old said after taking her head-to-head record to 6-2 against her Fed Cup teammate. “But, like I say, we always play pretty close.
“Always some tiebreaks, so you never know and I think she can be pretty dangerous on the court.”
Pliskova confronts Strycova, another countrywoman, in the fourth round.