MELBOURNE, Australia - Samantha Stosur and Zhang Shuai thrilled the night session crowd on Rod Laver Arena, defeating Barbora Strycova and Marketa Vondrousova 7-5, 4-6, 7-5 in a spectacular Australian Open semifinal between two unseeded pairs that came down to the wire.
Stosur and Zhang move into their third final together following Osaka in 2013 and Hong Kong last year, the latter their first title as a team. For Zhang, it will also be her first major final in any discipline, while Stosur returns to a Grand Slam doubles final for the first time since Wimbledon 2011, where she was runner-up alongside Sabine Lisicki to Kveta Peschke and Katarina Srebotnik.
The Australian also returns to a major title round on home soil for the first time in 13 years. Her formidable partnership with Lisa Raymond, with whom she was ranked World No.1, garnered one run to the final in Melbourne in 2006 - where they fell 2-6, 7-6(7), 6-3 to the Chinese pair of Yan Zi and Zheng Jie despite holding two championship points.
Today's win was an enthralling and unpredictable affair from start to finish, featuring 15 breaks of serve, with the quality reaching bravura heights in the home stretch. No lead was safe as momentum swung dramatically from one team to the other. Strycova, swarming the net at every opportunity, was the undoubted MVP on court for much of the first set, crossing and poaching with relish to break Stosur twice and Zhang once en route to a 5-1 lead.
But with Vondrousova stepping up to serve for the set at 5-2, the Australian-Chinese duo woke up - in particular Zhang, who upped the ante on her returns and fired a forehand winner to take the game after saving four set points. Now, it was her team who suddenly couldn't miss - and they reeled off eight consecutive games to take a 7-5, 2-0 lead, a Zhang backhand winner fizzing down the line to seal the first set.
The younger Czech was particularly under the cosh: when Vondrousova dropped serve for the fourth time in as many attempts, three after long multi-deuce tussles, to trail 1-3 in the second set, it seemed as though Stosur and Zhang were almost home and dry. But Stosur threw the Czech pair a lifeline with a double fault to bring up break-back point, and Strycova seized it with a delicately angled volley to level the score at 3-3 - and it was game on again.
Vondrousova had been the last player on court to find her feet in the match, but when the 19-year-old began making an impact she more than held her own. Indeed, as her rejuvenated team swept through five of the next six games, it was Vondrousova who was winning many of the crucial net battles and who sealed the second set with a sharp cross.
Once again, Stosur and Zhang leapt out to a lead in the deciding set, coming through a three-break sequence to lead 4-1. But once again, Strycova and Vondrousova would be at their most tenacious when all but down and out, and an incredible pickup from the latter levelled the score at 4-4. The climax of the match was a highlights reel of its own, with all four players stretching and leaping around the court in a series of breathtaking, athletic points.
Rising to the occasion the most was Zhang. At 4-4, Vondrousova hooked a brilliantly angled return winner to bring up break point; the Chinese player saved it with a neat volley, put the game to bed with a smash - and then ran rampant in the final game on the teenager's serve, conjuring up two marvellous volley winners before hammering an unreturnable backhand on her team's second match point.
Her partner was overflowing with praise after the two-hour, 36-minute battle: "Shuai picked it up at the end and won it for us," Stosur told the crowd. "My heart rate's so high at the moment!"
In the final, Stosur and Zhang will attempt to dethrone defending champions and No.2 seeds Timea Babos and Kristina Mladenovic, who had earlier moved into the final with a 6-4, 6-2 defeat of the unseeded Americans, Jennifer Brady and Alison Riske. "We're on a bit of a roll so hopefully we can keep it going in the final," said Stosur. "We're playing really well - so we may as well give it a crack!"