MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - World No.1 Simona Halep booked her first Australian Open final with a gritty 6-3, 4-6, 9-7 win over 2016 champion Angelique Kerber in a riveting semifinal on Thursday. The match saw Halep save two match points and Kerber save three match points before finally capitulating after 2 hours and 22 minutes. En route to her third major final, Halep has saved match points in two matches over the fortnight, and the No.1 ranking will be in play when she faces World No.2 Caroline Wozniacki on Saturday.
Three thoughts on Halep and Kerber's three-set thriller:
Simona Halep's character change.
The intense Romanian isn't one to flash a smile on court. Not when she hits a spectacular shot to roll to a 5-0 lead in the opening set of her first Australian Open semifinal - as she did on Thursday - and most certainly not when she's embroiled in an absolute dogfight - again, as she was on Thursday.
After failing to serve out the match at 5-3 in the third set, Halep found herself on the blunt end of a Kerber surge. Kerber burned her legs and seemed to have broken Halep's spirit after winning a stunning 26-shot rally to break Halep to 4-5 and rode the momentum of that moment to earn two break points at 6-5, 40-15. Halep saved the first by stepping in and opening up the court to earn a Kerber error. She looked at her box and smiled.
"I smiled," Halep said after the match. "I said, Maybe I can do it again. In my mind. I think it 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."
Simona Halep is reshaping her competitive character right in front of our eyes.
To understand Halep's transformation as a competitor, you just have to think back to the long list of matches Halep has played over the last two years where one errant shot would trigger a stunning capitulation. An undeniable perfectionist, Halep could be leading 6-0, 5-0 when one poor shot would lead to a run of three games lost. Last year in the French Open final, she was so angry after missing a forehand down the line she lost her focus for 10 minutes. That was all Jelena Ostapenko needed to get back in the match and force a third set.
And so began the quest last summer to build a new Simona, one who was kinder to herself, who forgave her mistakes, and one who could accept a loss but not an implosion. She's still not perfect and she will be the first to admit there's still much work to be done.
"It's not easy, because I was a little bit too negative before, so I'm trying to change that," Halep said. "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."
Halep's Melbourne campaign has seen its fair share of adversity: a bad ankle sprain in her opening match, the threat of a third consecutive first-round exit to a big-hitting upstart, saving triple-match point to survive an astounding effort from Lauren Davis in the third round, and once again saving match points to book a spot in her second Slam semifinal in the last eight months. Halep has cut a more relaxed figure when calmly dealing with each bad hand she was dealt.
Simona Halep's game change.
It's easy to overlook Halep's concerted efforts to improve her game over the last six months. After getting hit off the court in the French Open final and dealing with questions about her courage on big points, Halep has worked hard to become a more aggressive player. Against Kerber she fired an astounding 50 winners to Kerber's 33, and she was the more consistent aggressor throughout the match. Sometimes the shots did not fall - she also hit 50 unforced errors - but the old Halep would never have even tried.
Halep's improved aggressive mindset took center stage in the final set. Down double-match point at 6-5, 40-15, she took control of four consecutive points, building them perfectly to get to 6-6. After the lung-busting 16-shot rally to cap off that game, Halep stepped to the service line right away and fired down an ace. In that same 13th game she fired another forehand winner and then closed it out with yet another ace.
"I had actually two moments when I felt that the match was over," Halep said. "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. "
If there's one thing Halep has taken to heart under coach Darren Cahill, it's that mistakes are there to be learned from. After the French Open final, Halep worked to be more aggressive off the ground. After seeing her serve pummeled by Maria Sharapova at the US Open, Halep retreated to Romania and spent two weeks hitting baskets of balls after baskets of balls to improve her serve and ensure she never got bullied like that again. The serve is a big reason she's in the Australian Open final. In the clutch it has come up big for her when she's needed it most.
Angelique Kerber's heart is back in it.
There were times during Kerber's 2016 campaign that her success seemed to come by sheer force of will. Her unrelenting defense to upend Serena Williams in the Australian Open final. That stunning leaping forehand down the line she nailed deep in the third set to ultimately undo Karolina Pliskova in the US Open final. The countless matches she gripped with white bloody knuckles, refusing to let go.
Kerber was a shell of herself when 2017 rolled around. She has yet to fully articulate what exactly went so wrong last season, which saw her start at No.1 and fall outside the Top 20. From an outside observer's perspective, it was as if Kerber's just couldn't hold on anymore and she knew it. Kerber threw herself a 10-month pity party instead. She couldn't bring herself to fight because she didn't believe it would matter. She just didn't want to fight at all.
But white-knuckling Angie is back. She proved it from her first match at Hopman Cup, a hard-fought straight-set win over Australian Open semifinalist Elise Mertens, and continued by tallying wins over Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova, Madison Keys, Lucie Safarova, Camila Giorgi, Dominika Cibulkova, Ashleigh Barty, and her never-give-up win over Hsieh Su-Wei in the fourth round in Melbourne.
Kerber did not hang her head after taking this loss, despite having match points. She fought valiantly, she gave nothing away, and she left her heart on the court. As Halep applauded her off the court and the crowd offered a long standing ovation, Kerber turned, looked up, and saluted the crowd. Her chin was up and she took in the moment. That's what you wanted to see.
"You know, I tell to myself already that I gave everything," Kerber said. "This is always the most important thing. Of course I had the two match points, but even I did two chances, she played good, so I couldn't do nothing. It was just a battle at the end. It's just one or two points which decides the match.
"For me, I gave everything. This is what I will tell myself in the next few days. And looking back what I achieved in the last three weeks, yeah, it was not so bad, When I'm looking back, like, four, five weeks ago, and somebody told me that I will win so many matches in a row, winning a title, being in the semis here, and still having the opportunity to win this match, as well. I think I will just take the positive things from the last three, four weeks and I'm looking forward."
"I think I learned a lot. I know that I'm back, and 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.
"For me, the most important thing is that I'm again on court, and I'm fighting. I have my heart there. I really enjoy every single moment.
"You have to play your best in every single day. I think that I did it every single day here when I was here in Australia."
Great ready, 2018 WTA season. Angelique Kerber is back in the game.