It was a match that took place in the first month of the year, but will surely be remembered at season-end as one of the best of 2018.
Simona Halep triumphed over, not only her opponent Angelique Kerber, but also herself in a three-set battle that saw both players push themselves to inconceivable levels and leave us all with dropped jaws.
Kerber saved two match points, Halep saved two matches, but it was ultimately the Romanian world No. 1 who walked away with a 6-3, 4-6, 9-7 success on Thursday to reach the Australian Open final.
It was a mental victory for Halep just as much as it was physical.
Here are takeaways from that inspiring semi-final showdown…
FULL CIRCLE FOR HALEP
Seven months ago, Halep left Roland Garros heartbroken. She was up 6-4, 3-0 against an unseeded Jelena Ostapenko in the French Open final but lost the match in three sets. Against Kerber in the Australian Open semi-finals on Thursday, Halep went up 6-3, 3-1. She was doing everything right, bringing an attacking game to an in-form Kerber, who was 14-0 win-loss in 2018.
Halep had rolled her ankle in her opener in Melbourne this fortnight and there were concerns that her tournament was already over. But she pushed herself to continue and fought through a brutal match against Lauren Davis, winning 15-13 in the final set after 3 hours and 44 minutes.
By the time she reached the semis, Halep had spent 9 hours and 56 minutes on court through five matches.
So when she went up a set and a break on Kerber within an hour in the last-four on Thursday, things were really looking up for the Romanian. But, naturally, Kerber had other ideas. The former champion has also had her fair share of battles on the Grand Slam stage and the semi-final quickly turned into a heavyweight bout.
The third set was the stuff of legends. Kerber broke first, Halep struck back. The Romanian serve for the match at 5-3, Kerber broke for 4-5 outrallying the top seed in a 26-shot exchange that ended with the German on her knees (minute 9:06 in video below). Kerber then saved two match points to level the set. Halep saved two match points in game 12 to make it 6-6.
Kerber’s legs were fading while Halep, who has been playing with a dodgy ankle was still sprinting. Halep was in mind-over-matter mode and that mind, that perhaps failed her in Paris seven months ago, was determined to get the win this time to give the Romanian a chance to her redeem herself in a third Grand Slam final.
And indeed she did it. Halep freed herself from all her demons. She overcame her fears and snatched the victory with both hands. She had the legs, she had the shots, but most of all, she had the heart.
“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 told Rennae Stubbs on court after the match.
Doesn’t get more courageous than that! It can all come full circle for Halep on Saturday if she defeats Caroline Wozniacki to claim a first Grand Slam title.
BOTH WOMEN WALKED AWAY WINNERS
Yes, Halep won the match and earned a place in the final but this was a contest where really nobody lost. Kerber leaves Melbourne with nothing but positives from her Australian summer. The two-time Grand Slam champion has managed to move past her 2017 woes and is back to playing some incredible tennis. She gained confidence from amassing 14 matches in a row starting with the Hopman Cup then Sydney then the Australian Open, and showed grit in her defeat to Halep. She’s back in the top-10 when the new rankings are released on Monday and we can expect her to join the hunt for No. 1 and more majors this season.
As for Halep, at this point, the result in the final doesn’t really matter. She showed herself on Thursday that she can be fearless. If she ends up losing to a better Wozniacki on Saturday, it will not shake her. She will be disappointed but not broken. The regal Romanian has risen!
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) January 25, 2018
SIMO CAN BE A-G-G-R-E-S-S-I-V-E
Halep smiled when a reporter told her she hit 50 winners against Kerber in the match.
“A lot, huh? My brother just wrote me. I cannot believe actually. But I was aggressive, I had this in my mind,” she said.
Is it the first time she’s hit that many winners in a clash?
“I think so, yes, and I hope it’s not the last,” she replied.
“I feel more experienced, also stronger mentally and the way I play is more aggressive, I did 50 winners, eight aces if you can imagine, my coach told me,” she later said with a hint of sarcasm in her voice.
We have seen flashes of this kind of aggressive game from Halep in the past. Her straight-sets win over Serena Williams in Singapore in 2014 comes to mind. But the way she played against Kerber was a much more mature version of that. More of the same, please!
Marin Cilic dominated British hope Kyle Edmund in straight sets to become the first Croatian to reach the final of the Australian Open on Thursday.
The world No.6 powered into his third Grand Slam decider with a 6-2, 7-6 (7/4), 6-2 win in 2hr 18min on Rod Laver Arena over the unseeded Edmund to be the first man into Sunday’s final.
He will face either defending champion Roger Federer or unseeded South Korean Chung Hyeon, who play on Friday.
“Overall I’m feeling really good,” Cilic said. “Now I have two days off before the final.
“I noticed in the third game of the third set, when I broke him, he just let a couple of balls go past him.
“So I realised his movement was a little bit restricted, so I just tried to move the ball around and obviously that second break was extremely crucial.”
3️⃣rd Grand Slam final
1️⃣st #AusOpen final
1️⃣st 🇭🇷 man or woman to do so at Melbourne Park
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 25, 2018
It was an emphatic performance by the 2014 US Open champion, who broke Edmund’s serve four times and nullified the Briton’s powerful forehand.
The victory ensured that he will rise to a career-high of three when the new rankings come out on Monday.
Cilic will be only the second player outside the ‘Big Four’ of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal and Federer to reach the Melbourne final since Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in 2008 decider.
He lost to Federer in last year’s Wimbledon final, but beat the 19-time Grand Slam champion in the semi-finals on the way to his US Open triumph.
Cilic trails the Swiss ace 8-1, but leads Chung 3-0 in their meetings.
It was a match too far for 23-year-old Edmund, who upset world No.3 Grigor Dimitrov and world No.11 Kevin Anderson on the way to his first Grand Slam semi-final but had little left in the tank.
Cilic’s quick returns kept him on the defensive and the Croatian broke through in the sixth game when a net cord bounced out.
The Croat attacked Edmund’s backhand and kept away from his forehand weapon and came up with a second break with a forehand to the corner for the opening set.
Edmund left the court for a medical timeout and fought off break point in the fourth game of the second set.
At one point he become furious with umpire John Blom for awarding a point rather than replaying and ruling that it had not put the Briton off playing the shot.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 25, 2018
Games went with service but the Croatian was too strong in the tiebreaker, getting to three set points and taking a two sets to love lead with a backhand winner.
Cilic broke in the third game of the final set to take a firm grip as Edmund dropped his head.
It got no better as Edmund hit a backhand wide on break point to drop serve again in the seventh game to leave Cilic with the task of serving out for victory.
Despite losing it was a breakthrough tournament for Edmund, the only British man in this year’s field after five-time finalist Andy Murray’s injury withdrawal.
He became only the fourth British man to reach the Australian Open semi-finals in the post-1968 Open Era.
Provided by AFP Sport
The German, who won the tournament in 2016, had a form slump last year that saw her plunge down the rankings from being world number one at the start of 2017.
But a win in the lead-up Sydney International and a run to the last four at the opening Grand Slam of the year has been enough to convince her that she is again a force to be reckoned with.
“I know that I’m back,” she said after pushing world number one Halep to the brink in her 6-3, 4-6, 9-7 defeat, fashioning two match points but unable to convert either.
“I know that I can play again good tennis in front of amazing crowds and play tough matches, winning also matches where I’m down and fighting until the last point.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 25, 2018
“For me, the most important thing is that I’m again on court, and I’m fighting.
“I gave my heart there. I really enjoyed every single moment.
“You have to play your best every single day. I think that’s what I did it every single day here when I was here in Australia.”
Kerber is projected to race up the rankings to number nine from her current 16 when they are released after the tournament.
She said she was most satisfied with her fighting qualities in the Halep match.
“I mean, I gave everything. This is what I will tell myself in the next few days,” said Kerber, who celebrated her 30th birthday in Melbourne.
“And looking back what I achieved in the last three weeks, yeah, it was not so bad.
“When I’m looking back at four, five weeks ago, and somebody told me that I will win so many matches in a row, win a title, be in the semis here, and still having the opportunity to win this match, all is well.”