Thursday, January 25, 2018

Halep and Kerber's semifinal: so many stories, it could be a novel

Every match has a backstory, and some backstories are more interesting or entertaining than others. Yesterday, in Melbourne, Simona Halep and Angie Kerber arrived on the court with dramatically intersecting stories that were soon acted out in some of the most dramatic and thrilling theatre that any sports fan (or, for that matter, any person with a heartbeat) could hope to experience.

One of Halep's stories was about her tenuous hold on the number 1 ranking. If she lost the semifinal, she would also lose the top ranking. Another story was that she was going for a third try at winning a major; she failed twice at the French Open, despite playing extremely well in both of those finals against Maria Sharapova and Alona Ostapenko. The Romanian's reputation as a gifted player whose attitude tends to lower her playing level and cause her to lose matches she "should" win was yet another story. Then there was the somewhat tiresome story about talented players who have little hope against "power" players.

That would be enough to fill a book, but there were more immediate stories surrounding Halep. During the first round, she rolled her ankle, and there was talk that she might have to withdraw. And then there was that third round match against Lauren Davis, an event that tested both the mental and physical faculties of both players, and that went on for three hours and 44 minutes. Halep faced three consecutive match points against Davis, and saved them all.

Meanwhile, former world number 1 Kerber brought stories of her own. In 2016, the German stunned the tennis world by winning the Australian Open and the U.S. Open, reaching the final at Wimbledon, and winning a silver medal at the Olympic Games. But in 2017, her performance was so lackluster that she dropped out of the top 20--the biggest next-season fall not due to injury of any number 1 player in rankings history.

But Kerber came back strong in 2018, reaching the Hopman Cup final and winning Sydney. She entered the Australian Open with a 14-0 record (counting her four Hopman Cup) wins) in 2018. And she appeared to be on track to win another Australian trophy--until she ran into Hsieh Su-wei in the round of 16. Hsieh took Kerber to the brink with her clever and unpredictable game, but Kerber prevailed, making her appear to be in an even better position to win the title.

Halep also entered the tournament with ten WTA match wins. The Romanian had won the Shenzhen tournament in both singles and doubles (her first doubles title), and appeared more relaxed that she had in the past.

Both players had potentially tough tests in the quarterfinals, but those matches turned out to be tiny chapters in The Book of Angie and Simona. Kerber knocked off Madison Keys easily, and Halep defeated Karolina Pliskova just as easily. It's a great pity that the pair wound up on the same side of the draw because--if any match should have been a final--it was their instant classic semifinal.

The details of this match have already been extensively recorded and discussed, so I'll just mention the most dramatic ones: Halep led 5-0 in the first set. Each player saved two match points. In the third set, each player was, at times, staggering on the court, resembling prize fighters in tennis kits. Many of the rallies were breathtaking, as one might expect from two of the greatest defensive players ever to grace the WTA.

For viewers (and probably for the players), time passed in Schiavone-Kuznetsova style. It was a surprise to learn that the match lasted only two hours and 20 minutes; it seemed like it went on all night (or day, if you were in Australia). Halep prevailed, 6-3, 4-6, 9-7, and here's the bad news for the Romanian: The last player you want to face after everything but your blood has been drained is Caroline Wozniacki, and that's whom Halep plays in the final.

Wozniacki, even after all these years, could probably play consecutive five-hour matches without breaking too much of a sweat, so extreme is her athletic endurance. She has said in the past that it doesn't matter to her how long she has to stay on the court.

To make matters even worse for Halep, Wozniacki had a fairly easy time of it in her own semifinal. Elise Mertens, one of the great stories of this tournament, finally caved in to a case of nerves, though--in the second set--we saw glimpses of the Elise who had thrilled crowds throughout the tournament. The Belgian's serve, a deadly weapon through the quarterfinals, became a much weaker element in her game, and she made repeated anxiety-triggered errors. Wozniacki, very much on her game, beat her 6-3, 7-6.

The Dane also had to make a narrow escape in this tournament. Down 1-5 in the third set of her second round match against Joan Fett, Wozniacki saved two match points. Also, like Halep, Wozniacki (also a former world number 1, and currently world number 2) has had two chances to win a major, but has failed to do so. Both of Wozniacki's finals were played at the U.S. Open. If Wozniacki wins the Australian Open, she will become the new world number 1.

It's very hard to imagine that the final could be better--or even as good as--the match played by Kerber and Halep. And while we don't know how the 2018 Australian Open story ends--and it will end with someone finally winning her first major--the stories that came together in the Kerber-Halep semifinal created enough wonder and amazement, they could have filled Scheherazade's 1,001 nights.

No comments: