MELBOURNE, Australia — Simona Halep fended off Angelique Kerber to set up a high stakes Australian Open final against Caroline Wozniacki that will have a first Grand Slam title and the No. 1 ranking on the line for both players.
After No. 2 Wozniacki had secured her spot in the final, top-seeded Halep raced to a 6-3, 3-1 lead in the second semifinal before Kerber rallied to force a third. Both players had chances to serve out the match, and both staved off match points in long and engrossing rallies, before Halep converted her fourth match point in a 6-3, 4-6, 9-7 victory.
Halep was on a 10-match winning streak after collecting the title in Shenzhen, China, while Kerber was on a 14-match streak that included the Hopman Cup and her title run in Sydney.
"Well, definitely was very tough. I'm shaking now — I'm really emotional," Halep said after her 2-hour, 20-minute semifinal win over Kerber, the only major winner to reach the last four. "I'm really glad that I could resist. I had two match balls and I lost them. Today I was like a roller coaster — up and down — (but) I had confidence in myself."
For Halep, now, it's a first Grand Slam final appearance off the clay at Roland Garros. For Wozniacki, it's a first Grand Slam final outside of America.
Both finalists have had to save match points to reach Saturday's championship match.
Halep spent just shy of 10 hours on court in her first five matches, the longest of any of the semifinalists, and fended off triple match point in her third-round win over Lauren Davis that ended 15-13 in the third.
Wozniacki has had a slightly smoother run, though she had to save match points and rally from 5-1 down in the third set of her second-round win. She also had some nervous moments in her 6-3, 7-6 (2) semifinal win over Elise Mertens.
Wozniacki appeared to be coasting against Mertens, getting breaks in the middle of each set. But she began getting tight when she was serving for the match at 5-4: From 30-15, she double-faulted twice and Mertens passed her with a forehand winner to level the set at 5-5.
The No. 37-ranked Mertens lifted her intensity, holding her serve at love and then having two set points in the next game before Wozniacki eventually held in a service game lasting 8
"I got really tight at 5-4," Wozniacki said. "I think I was nervous. I didn't do much wrong for the first three points of that game. I served two good serves, then I had that forehand down the line which I missed by a couple of millimeters. It was 30-15 instead of 40-Love. All of a sudden, yeah, it just turned around."
In the tiebreaker, Wozniacki's experience made the difference.
"Once she had set points. I thought, 'OK, now you just have to go for it ... she's nervous now, too,'" Wozniacki said. "I managed to just gather myself and thankfully closed it out in the end."
The 27-year-old Dane squandered a match point in a semifinal here against Li Na seven years ago, but held her composure this time around and converted her first match point in the tiebreaker.
Wozniacki lost U.S. Open finals to Kim Clijsters in 2009 and to Serena Williams in 2014, but it was that semifinal loss to Li that has haunted her most among her near-misses.
"I've had many bad losses, many great wins (but) 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.
"I think that's why it hurt extra that I lost that day, especially with being one point away. I think if you ask any player, they always have one or two matches that they'll think back on that hurt extra."
The last time the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds met in an Australian Open women's final, No. 1 Serena Williams beat No. 2 Maria Sharapova in straight sets in 2015. That was 11 years after the previous time, when No. 1 Justine Henin beat No. 2 Kim Clijsters in three.
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