Halep outlasts Kerber
Simona Halep reached her maiden Australian Open final after overcoming Angelique Kerber 6-3, 4-6, 9-7 in an almighty contest that will live long in the memory.
Perhaps the match of the tournament in terms of pure competition, both players saved five match points between them - three for Kerber, two for Halep - completed 39 rallies over nine shots and ran themselves into the ground.
Both had come into the match with an unbeaten record in 2018, and anticipation for their meeting on Rod Laver Arena was sky high.
But this match looked set to be anything other than a spectacle in the opening stages, as Simona Halep raced to a 5-0 lead within just 14 minutes as Kerber struggled to find her range, particularly on her forehand wing.
The German got back to 5-3 as she rediscovered some of her previous form, but it proved all too fleeting as Halep claimed her fourth break of serve to take a one set lead.
It was Halep who seized the initiative in the second set too, breaking for a 3-1 lead. But there had been signs that Kerber’s groundstrokes were beginning to find their zip, and she broke back immediately to stay alive.
The 2016 champion’s grit was called upon once again when serving at 3-4 down, with Halep generating two break points. Kerber fended off the first with a serve-winner combination, and saved the second by a mere whisker when a huge forehand was confirmed in by Hawk-eye.
She escaped, and it proved to be a crucial juncture. The German broke and then consolidated to set up a third set that had looked decidedly unlikely just a matter of games ago.
In the decider, the drama and playing level increased with almost every stroke, most notably the one that brought Kerber an opening break of serve after an lung-bursting, 23-shot rally.
It proved to just be one of many twists and turns to come. Halep broke back immediately, and the pair settled into a holding rhythm until 4-3, when the Romanian broke again, earning the opportunity to serve for the match.
But again the tide turned, with Kerber breaking back after ending an astonishing, 26-shot rally with a crouched backhand that angled beyond Halep’s reach.
On we went. On went the drama. Halep earned two match points after a Hawk-eye call went in her favour, but Kerber saved both, and then rode that shift in momentum to a break of her own.
Somehow, the German now led 6-5 decider, and it was her turn to hold two match points. Of course, given how the match had gone, it was only fitting that Halep saved both and then broke to send us into extra time at 6-6.
At 8-7 to Halep, thoughts turned to the Romanian’s epic against Lauren Davis in the third round, which she had won 15-13 in the third set.
But Kerber had begun to tire a little, and Halep, in search of her first Grand Slam title, looked just slightly hungrier as she pushed for a place in the final. The Romanian was denied on her third match point, but finally got over the line when Kerber sent a backhand long.
"I try to be very calm, but today was like a rollercoaster up and down," said Halep. "I didn't give up, not even a ball. I did it really well, and I'm really proud of myself actually.
"I’m shaking now, I’m really emotional. I’m really glad I could resist and win this match."
Wozniacki banishes ghost of 2011
Caroline Wozniacki overcame a severe bout of nerves to reach her first Australian Open final, beating tournament debutant Elise Mertens 6-3, 7-6(2).
Having been in control for approximately 70 minutes of the encounter, the Dane found herself two points from victory when serving at 5-4 in the second set.
This was not an unfamiliar position. Seven years ago, Wozniacki had served for a place in the 2011 Australian Open final against Li Na, also while leading 6-3, 5-4.
On that occasion Wozniacki had seen a match point go begging on her serve, ultimately succumbing 6-3, 5-7, 3-6 to her opponent.
After reaching the last four this year, the world No.2 had admitted that missed opportunity still affected her. “That’s the one that really hurt,” she said. “I had a match point. I lost it. That’s still haunting me to this day. So I’m hoping for a different outcome this time.”
On Thursday afternoon, all those memories came flooding back as Wozniacki once again failed to serve her way into the Australian Open final.
Having lost just 11 points on serve up until that point, the Dane hit two double faults as she was suddenly broken, allowing Mertens back into the contest.
A quick love hold for the unseeded Belgian only added to the tension, and Wozniacki found herself staring down an all-too-recognisable barrel at 5-6 down.
Having been pushed to her limit against Jana Fett in the second round, when she trailed 1-5 and 15-40 in the third set, Wozniacki’s mettle came under even further examination when Mertens earned two set points at 40-15.
To her credit, the Dane fended off both with some aggressive play, but then faltered again, squandering a game point with another double fault.
Two more game points would come and go, but Wozniacki eventually escaped with a crucial service hold after eight minutes of pure drama.
In the resulting tie-break, the world No.2 decided this would not be a repeat of 2011, near refusing to miss a ball as Mertens’ brief resurgence wilted.
Having got to the changeover at 4-2 up, Wozniacki pulled away from her opponent, raising her arms in a mixture of joy and relief as she sealed her place in Saturday’s final.
“I got really tight at 5-4. I felt like I was hitting against a wall,” said Wozniacki post-match.
“Serving for the match against Na in 2011 was definitely on my mind today, but I tried to stay calm and I was lucky to get the win."
“I’m sorry,” said Wozniacki of her battle to cross the finishing line against Mertens.
“When I started on tour my dad had dark hair, now it’s all grey.”
The final hurdle
After all the shocks in the women's competition, we arrive at the final just as the seedings predicted we would; with No.1 and No.2 still standing.
On Saturday night, a first-time Grand Slam champion will be crowned, with both women having lost their previous two Grand Slam singles finals.
But that's not all - also on the line is the world No.1 ranking. Halep will defend her territory with a victory, while Wozniacki will reach the summit should the result go her way.
It promises to be a thriller...