When Simona Halep led 5-0 after 13 minutes, it looked like the Australian Open semi-final against Angelique Kerber might be a rout. In the end, it became a classic, the best WTA match of the season at Grand Slam level. Halep, the first Romanian finalist in the tournament's history, saved a couple of match points before sealing a 6-3 4-6 9-7 win.
Halep began the match firing blistering back-to-back winners to win the first five games in less than a quarter of an hour. “In the first three games I was not playing my best, but then she was playing really aggressive, really good.
She hit winners,” Kerber admitted. “But I knew that maybe it was a late start from me, but at the end, you know, it's just the first few games, and I knew that I will come back and I was just not thinking too much about the time or the score, whatever.
Just playing the next point, next game, and, yeah, staying in the match”. However, two Halep double faults opened the door and Kerber, undefeated in 14 matches to begin the 2018 season, found her range on her down the line forehands to come back into the match.
She netted an easy one, however, to help her opponent to convert the second set point. Aware of that possible weakness, Halep attacked Kerber's forehand with heavy strokes, adding shape to her game from the baseline, and served to move 4-1 up in the second.
The German began to fight back, showing the best of her gritty style as Halep failed to punish a second serve on break point at 4-3. “I was thinking how to play her to finish the points quicker. She was returning every single ball,” admitted Halep in the post-match press conference.
“And at 4-3 in the second set when I had a break point, that ball, when it touched the line, got me down a little bit. But still, I know that she's a fighter. So I knew I have to stay there and to just to keep the balance between fighting and also controlling myself”.
When Kerber slotted a running forehand passing shot to level at 4-4, the Rod Laver Arena crowd roared. And the best was yet to come. Halep began to leak more errors, negative thinking did the rest. The German forced a decider.
Working under Darren Cahill, Halep revealed, helped her to feel more relaxed during tense matches. “It's not easy, because I was a little bit too negative before, so I'm trying to change that. I changed already, but I need to work on it more.
I want to improve more, and for sure, if I will be focused on this thing, I will be much better in the future” she said. Kerber broke immediately after a magnificent 22-strokes that generated a well-deserved standing ovation.
Halep recovered and belted three winners in a row to move 4-3 up. She finished the match with 50 winners. “A lot, eh?” she said smiling after the match. “My brother just wrote me. I cannot believe, actually. But I was aggressive.
I had this in my mind, and I wanted to finish the points quicker but was not that easy with her. She's moving very well”. The world No.1 used her forehand to move her opponent, breaking serve to build a 5-3 lead. Kerber fought to win a stunning 26-stroke rally with a backhand winner and break back to 4-5.
“I didn't think about the ankle at that moment,” said Halep, who suffered an injury during her marathon win over Lauren Davis earlier in the tournament. “About breathing, for sure. But now the right foot is a little bit worse because I push everything on it.
So it's tough, but I don't want to think about that, to be honest”. Also, Kerber, who felt tired the morning before the match, was feeling her legs. But she didn't give up: no retreat, no surrender. “I think at the end I was just trying to give everything that I have left today,” the German said.
“I was fighting until the last point, and I came back after the first set and also when I was, like, 3-5 down in the third set, and I think for me I was just fighting for every point.
You know, you have days where you're not feeling good, but my heart was on the court, and I think this is, for me, the most important thing that I put everything on the court”. The German back for 4-5 and saved two match points, the second of which she saved with another backhand winner.
“The match is over when you win the last point,” said Kerber, answering a question on the different feelings when she's one point from losing and one point from winning. “So it doesn't matter. I mean, I'm trying always to be aggressive, but in my match points she was the aggressive player, and other, opposite, I was the aggressive player.
So you never know. I mean, you always try to be the first who can go for it”. Kerber won three games in a row, moved 6-5 up, and not it was Halep’s turn to save match points, her forcing forehands rewarded. On the second match point, she looked at her coach and smiled.
“I said: maybe I can do it again. In my mind, “she revealed. “Yeah, I think helped me a little bit to relax and to take it like it is. I didn't put pressure on myself, and I think it was a good timing”.
Back on level terms at 6-6, Halep tried to forget the score, to look point by point. “I had actually two moments when I felt that the match was over. I have no power anymore and everything is gone. But I served pretty well in the service games, and then I got confident again.
And like I said, I didn't give up, which meant a lot, and that's how I won the match”. In the final game, Kerber came out on top of a thrilling 18-shot exchange to save a third match point, but she fired her last backhand long, her 34th unforced error to 33 winners, on the fourth opportunity. That was the end of a classic.