January 30, 2020
Garbine Muguruza reached her first Australian Open final with one of the greatest performances of her entire career.
She will face Sofia Kenin in the unlikeliest of finals after edging Simona Halep 7-6 (10-8), 7-5.
Halep did little wrong. She too was brilliant. But she was facing an irresistible force across the net.
After a colossal battle, Muguruza carved out two match points with sensational defence.
She nailed the second.
A delighted Muguruza said: ‘I’m very excited to be in the final. One more match on Saturday!
‘I was hanging in there and fighting with all the energy I had against Simona.
‘We train all of our career to be able to play on this court in front of this crowd.’
This was a sizzling contest in temperatures initially approaching 40 degrees.
You wondered how on earth these two superfit women managed to produce such electrifying quality in such brutal conditions.
What a treat. What amazing stamina and commitment. They played like this was the true final.
Some might say it was.
Muguruza saved four set points before taking the opener in a tie-break.
That was a marvellous, free-flowing contest in itself, full of guts and genius.
At the end of the breaker Halep smashed her racquet in frustration and earned a warning.
Muguruza had served for the first set. But at that point it was Halep who had raised her game just in time.
Suddenly Garbine faced two set points. But she battled hard to save the situation and force the tie-break.
Amazing defence and anticipation helped give Muguruza a 3-0 lead in the breaker.
Halep simply exerted more pressure and drew level.
Back came Muguruza to power her way to two set points. Halep saved them, the second with a sensational forehand down the line.
Moments later it was the Spaniard’s turn to save a set point with a beautifully-angled serve.
But she gifted Simona another with a double fault.
Muguruza saved that in spectacular style after a mesmerising twenty-shot rally.
Soon it was Halep facing set point. Garbine stretched and made a killer drop-volley that the advancing Romanian couldn’t quite master.
The Venezualan-born star had taken the first set against the odds.
Both players broke early in the second as they searched for superiority. Then Halep did it again to take control of the second. She served for the set. Muguruza hit back with almost superhuman resistance.
Halep’s spirit was finally broken by one wave of Muguruza magic after another.
Ashleigh Barty squandered two set points in both the first and second sets of a match she should really have won.
She played the big moments as though she carried the hopes and expectations of all Australia on her shoulders.
Maybe she did.
Afterwards she admitted bravely: ‘I didn’t play the biggest points well enough to win the match.’
American underdog Kenin eventually took a mediocre match 7-6 (8-6), 7-5. She deserved it, too.
We all love Ash. She is a former Wimbledon junior champion. She is humble and natural. She is also extremely talented.
At WDH we even tipped her for glory before the tournament.
But after watching her last match, we also warned that she needed to keep a promise she had made.
To approach the semi-final with a smile on her face.
Otherwise, we sensed, there was a danger she could lose to Kenin.
Sadly Ash didn’t smile all match. She tightened markedly as the basics of her game malfunctioned.
Tennis is such a psychological game. And Barty is more complex than some would have us believe.
If she is enjoying herself, she wins. If she is tense and feels too much pressure, she loses.
As we had pointed out pre-match, Kenin doesn’t care if the crowd is against her. She has the strength of character to take advantage of a favourite’s nerves.
That’s what she did on the key points.
Kenin said: ‘I believed in myself on those set points.’ Now she has her reward for that self-belief.
At twenty-one she is the youngest woman to reach a Grand Slam final for twelve years.
She describes herself as feisty. And she has been telling people she wants to be world number one since she was seven years old.
It was only towards the end of the second set that Kenin really reached her highest level though.
Maybe she too struggled with the magnitude of the occasion. Plus the fact that her opponent is meant to be the best in the world.
In truth, neither woman played most of the match as though they were in the top fifty, never mind top-ranked or a world-number-one wannabe.
That didn’t bother Sofia. And she was fully entitled to enjoy her moment.
Kenin said: ‘This is a dream come true. I’ve dreamt of this moment all my life.
‘She is such a tough player and I had to find a way to win.
‘She came up with some great shots and I knew I had to come up with something because she wasn’t going to give it to me.
‘She is such a fighter and she is world number one for a reason.
‘I’m just so speechless and I can’t believe I have reached this moment. I’m so excited to be in the final and so proud of myself.’
Kenin will have to play the entire final just like she did to close out against Barty if she is to stand any chance.
Magical Muguruza would have to suffer an inexplicable off-day for Kenin to win the title.
Otherwise the awesome power of the favourite will see her add the Australian Open title to her previous Grand Slam triumphs at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.
But as we all know, nothing is certain in sport.
Particularly in the weird and wonderful world of women’s tennis.
Muguruza and Halep just took that world into a fresh orbit.