AUSTRALIAN OPEN 1st major, top ranking at stake in Halep-Wozniacki final

Associated Press

MELBOURNE, Australia

For the second time in the tournament, Simona Halep faced match points and knew one mistake would mean an exit from the Australian Open and the likely loss of her No. 1 ranking.

For the second time in just over a week, she attacked rather than take the safe approach. The 26-year-old Romanian saved two match points and needed four of her own against 2016 champion Angelique Kerber before winning 6-3, 4-6, 9-7 in the semifinals.

Halep will face No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki in the final on Saturday, with one of them guaranteed to win a first Grand Slam title. The winner will also be No. 1 when the next rankings are released. Wozniacki, who beat Elise Mertens 6-3, 7-6 (2) in 1 1/2 hours in the first semifinal, hasn’t held the top ranking in six years.

It’s Halep first major final beyond the clay courts of Roland Garros.

For Wozniacki, it’s her first Grand Slam final outside of America. The two-time U.S. Open runner-up also had to save match points to reach her first Australian Open final. She rallied from 5-1 down in the third set of her second-round win and said she’s been “playing with the house money” ever since.

Previous Australian Open winners have saved match points en route to the final, but no woman has done it in two matches.

Halep has a new resolve after back-to-back first-round exits previously at Melbourne Park. She won a lot of the long, intense rallies against Kerber and hit 50 winners, which surprised even her. She raced to a 5-0 lead in the first set, and led 3-1 in the second, but didn’t wilt as Kerber came back.

“I try to be very calm, but today I was like a roller coaster, up and down,” she said. “But I didn’t give up, not even a ball. I’m really proud of myself, actually.”

Wozniacki squandered a match point in an Australian Open semifinal match against Li Na seven years ago, but held her composure this time around and converted her first match point in the tiebreaker.

The semifinal loss to Li that has haunted her most among her near-misses.

“That’s one of the ones that hurt extra because it was going into the finals of a Grand Slam,” she said. “I felt like I was playing better on the day. I felt like it was my time to get there.

“That’s why it hurt extra that I lost that day, especially with being one point away.”

Halep said she’s had the top ranking before, so winning a major has become more important.

“It’s also my dream, to win a Grand Slam title,” Halep said. “But, you know, it’s always tough when you are close. I had this opportunity two times. The last one was very close.”

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