Reem Abulleil looks at the main takeaways from the Simona Halep-Angelique Kerber epic Australian Open semi-final.
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!
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!