The scoreline will show straight sets wins but both the women’s semi-finals at the Australian Open were extremely close contests. One was a scrap, the other a hustle and purely on the basis of rankings, both were shock results.
American 14th seed Sofia Kenin ended the run of home favourite and world No 1 Ashleigh Barty while unseeded Garbine Muguruza out-hit fourth seed Simona Halep under a hot Melbourne sun to set up a final not many would have seen coming a few days back… or even a day back.
Kenin, the 21-year-old first-time Major finalist, has been flying under the radar by her own admission while Muguruza, a two-time Slam champion and former world No 1, was unseeded for the first time since 2014. They were up against two reigning Grand Slam champions.
But in sport, as in life, anything can happen.
The surprise final line-up is the result of a shock-filled draw but it is also the direct consequence of the fight shown by the two finalists through the tournament. Both Kenin and Muguruza fought back from under-pressure positions in both sets to get the straight-sets win, and showed the kind of never-say-die spirit that makes champions.
Muguruza overcomes Halep
For the unseeded Spaniard, this was her first semi-final at Australian Open.
After lifting Majors in 2016 and 2017, she had dropped down the rankings and a poor 2019 meant she was not even seeded. Add to it a viral illness a week before and when she dropped the first set in Melbourne 6-0, not many gave her a chance of going deep.
But when the 26-year-old’s attacking game style kicks into high gear, she is capable of big things.
The match against Halep – who was yet to drop a set in Melbourne – was akin to the punishing quarter-final between Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem, with the players playing punishing groundstrokes and not giving up at any point. Long and grueling rallies punctuated by grunts of effort, fiercely-struck groundstrokes being retrieved and every inch of the baseline being defended.
The momentum shifted as swiftly as the players moved through the court but in the end, Muguruza’s offense trumped Halep’s defensive game by a small margin.
The two sets took over two hours, the match starting with both players facing break points and saving them. The break points were aplenty – a side effect of the level of tennis on display - Halep earned 13 break points while Muguruza had 14 but both saved 10 each.
Muguruza had the first break of the match but was broken while serving for the set by the pugnacious Romanian. She was then forced to save set points on serve to take the first set into the tiebreak.
There was little to separate the two but the tiebreak shootout was the match in a nutshell as the score shifted from 3-0 to 3-3 and Halep had more set points. After her fourth chance was squandered after a 20-shot rally, her level dropped and the set followed.
She smashed her racquet in anger over her unforced errors on set points but regrouped quickly to take an early break in the second. Two more consecutive breaks followed but this time Halep was unable to serve out the set and was broken in the final game.
Kenin ends the Barty party
Saving set points was the theme of the semi-finals. Kenin had also saved two in each set to knock out Barty, the top seed.
In hindsight, the first semi-final now seems to pale a little as compared to the second one. But it was by no means less gritty.
But Kenin, who had famously dissected Andy Roddick’s serve as a seven-year-old, showed no sign of nerves when it mattered most. She stuck to her aggressive game and applied enough pressure to make inroads into Barty’s game. Just as she had done to end Coco Gauff’s run in the fourth round. She does love to play party pooper, doesn’t she?
The world No 1 had variety but Kenin was able to counter it with solid strokes of her own from the baseline. The slice was sent back, the drop shots were chased down and the net points neutralised.
There were no breaks of serve in the first set as the American saved three break points while getting not one from her opponent. The 14th seed was then down 4-6 in the tiebreak but kept pushing the ball back, eventually claimed four straight points off two errors and two forehand winners – one of them a delicious passing shot.
But Barty was still in the game when she got an early break in the second and held on to it till she was serving for a chance to take the semi-final into a decider. And that is when nerves and Kenin’s aggression struck again as a combination of errors and passing winner pegged Barty back and she didn’t win another game.
With renewed confidence, she held to love and then ripped into Barty’s serve, who committed a double fault and ended the match with a forehand error, cruel considering how well it has served her in the early stages.
The final will see a fascinating battle between two competitors, who make for an unlikely combination. The American has won the only meeting between the two but the momentum from winning the tough semi-final battles makes it a hard match to call.