Click here to read Steve's entire countdown of the Best Matches of 2018.
There are the epics we expect: Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal and Venus Williams vs. Petra Kvitova, to name two, are match-ups that almost always deliver the competitive goods.
Then there are the epics that come careening in from left field. Exhibit A on that list in 2018 was Simone Halep’s 4-6, 6-4, 15-13 win over Lauren Davis in the third round of the Australian Open. The match jump-started 2018, and foreshadowed many more marathons to come for Halep. As it was being played, and the Romanian and the American whipsawed us through a torturously entertaining third set, it riveted the tennis world like few contests would all season.
Australian Open officials certainly weren’t expecting anything special. Despite the fact that Halep was the top seed and world No. 1, they chose to have her open Rod Laver Arena’s day session at 11:00 in the morning. Their skepticism was understandable: While Halep was No. 1, Davis was ranked just 76th, and the last time they had played, Halep had strolled to a 6-2, 6-0 win.
But the signs were there from the start that this time things would be different. Rankings aside, Halep and Davis have a lot of similarities. At 5’6” and 5’3”, respectively, each is undersized by WTA standards. Each is a runner who can also hit winners, but neither is powerful enough to blow an opponent off the court. That’s a recipe for long rallies on any day. On this day, it was a recipe for really long, really good rallies.
The statistics tell some of the story. The match lasted three hours and 44 minutes, and 333 points. The third set alone took two hours and 22 minutes. Over the course of that set, Halep grabbed at her ankle in pain, while Davis felt her throat during changeovers, and had a blister on her foot worked on. There were 13 breaks of serve, but those breaks were won by the returner, rather than lost by the server. If anyone tries to tell you that baseline rallies are boring by nature, or that service breaks are a sign of bad tennis, point them to Halep-Davis. It disproves both of those narrow-minded ideas.
Davis, who hit 52 winners, may never have played with such an uncomplicated sense of purpose. She flattened out her ground strokes and flicked them into the corners with the brusquest of wrist snaps. She was especially good at redirecting the ball with her forehand. She came to net 38 times and won 28 of those points. She never stopped firing, but she never played recklessly, and she was the better player for most of the match.
The only thing, and it’s a big thing, that Davis couldn’t do was close. Each time she appeared to have the match in hand—including the three match points she held on Halep’s serve late in the third set—Davis’s mind got in the way of her arms. The simple forehands she had been flicking for winners weren’t so simple anymore.
Halep spent most of this match’s 333 points on the defensive. She made it to the net just 13 times, and was at the mercy of Davis from the baseline. But in the end, she gritted this one out from the back of the court. She ran far past the tram-lines to chase balls down, and she used her swinging wide serve in the deuce court when she needed it. Down 0-40, triple match point, she stopped missing.
“I’m almost dead,” Halep said with a smile afterward.
Instead, it was Davis who had to walk away a loser, possibly from the best match she’ll ever play. Her brilliance for these four hours didn’t lead to more of the same in 2018. She would go out in the first round of qualifying at Wimbledon and the US Open, spend most of her weeks at small events in places like Tyler, Texas, and Macon, Georgia, and finish the year ranked No. 174.
“If I would have lost it, I would have been very sad,” a re-energized Halep said after a post-match massage. “But now I have energy. I have good thoughts.”
Those good thoughts would take her all the way to the Australian Open final, and a third set against Caroline Wozniacki. Halep wasn’t the winner that day, but it felt like she learned something about herself at that tournament, and from her win over Davis.
Fighting, she seemed to discover, was enough. No, Halep would never be as tall as most of the other top players. She would never win matches easily, or win a major title without a Herculean effort. But with her epic victory over Davis, and another over Angelique Kerber in the semifinals, Halep knew the effort was worth it. Five months later, at the French Open, she proved herself right.