Unseeded for the first time at a major since 2014, a resurgent Garbine Muguruza is now a win away from adding a third major title to her career Grand Slam bid after rising to the occasion on a scorching Thursday that pushed the Spaniard and Simona Halep to the limit. In the second semifinal at the Australian Open, the 26-year-old erased four set points in the opening set before prevailing, 7-6 (8), 6-4, over Halep to win a stirring battle of former No. 1s and set a championship clash with No. 14 seed Sofia Kenin.
"You didn't know who was going to win that first set. I think we both had set points. I knew was going to be a hard match," Muguruza said. "The first set was very long, so I knew it was going to be key to the match because of the circumstances and the weather. "Just [said] hang in there and whoever was going to be stronger was going to get it. I was happy that I stayed solid there [and] took my chances at the end."
It’s a remarkable turnaround for Muguruza, who in reuniting with Conchita Martinez, has hit her stride over the fortnight with the game that yielded her greatest successes at the 2016 French Open and 2017 Wimbledon. In 2019, she failed to reach a major quarterfinal for the first time since 2013 and ended the year at No. 36, her lowest finish in six years. Muguruza also arrived at Melbourne Park with a viral illness, which had forced her to withdraw from Hobart.
In her first-round match against Shelby Rogers, Muguruza won just nine points in dropping the first set, 6-0. She battled back to win 12 of 13 games and after claiming a second straight three-setter over Ajla Tomljanovic, put her competition on notice with a 6-1, 6-2 rout over No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina and 6-3, 6-3 dismissal of No. 9 seed Kiki Bertens.
Muguruza improved to 4-0 lifetime against Halep on hard courts, but nearly saw the first set get away from her after blowing a 5-3 lead and failing to serve it out at 5-4. Halep won 15 of 17 points to hold her first two set points, but all set long, Muguruza stepped up on the pressure points by swinging away, both on serve and with her redirecting on the baseline.
It led to a suspenseful tiebreaker, where Muguruza led 6-4, saw two set points disappear, then faced two more of her own. Her fourth save came after winning a 20-shot exchange, and from there, Halep unraveled just enough to drop the set, resulting in receiving a code violation warning for racquet abuse. The frustration was understandable, as the 2018 runner-up won 49 points to Muguruza’s 44.
The two continued their roller-coaster ride in the second set, as the heat far extended beyond the temperature on the court. Muguruza had the more aggressive position on the baseline, with Halep pushed five feet further back. The No. 4 seed held her own in going toe-to-toe with the bigger-hitter to go up a break on three separate occasions, and a third set looked to be on the horizon.
With Halep serving at 5-4, Muguruza refused to back down. She had been knocking on the door in her two previous return games and on her fourth opportunity in the crucial game, broke to draw even. She would ultimately win 10 of the final 13 points to emerge as the winner after two hours and five minutes.
"To lose like this hurts more, definitely. I'm in pain now, I have to admit. But life is going on," Halep reflected. "I think maybe I could be a little bit more brave in the points that were important. I didn't do that. Maybe I went a little bit defensive in those balls and I couldn't take the domination of the point. She served very well in the important moments. My return was not great today."
Kenin, who saved a pair of set points in each of her sets to upend world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, defeated Muguruza to win the pair’s first meeting in Beijing four months ago. Muguruza is 2-1 in Grand Slam finals, holding the distinction as the only player to ever defeat both Serena and Venus Williams for a major crown. Ranked No. 32, Muguruza is guaranteed a return to the Top 20 Monday and can climb back to No. 12 with a victory over the American.
"I think she's playing great. I think since a while, she's just progressing up in the rankings and in the results," said Muguruza. "So I think she deserves to be in the final with the tennis she has been showing."