One of the smallest players in the draw has fallen just, well, short, of completing the biggest upset so far. In what was easily the longest and best contest of the women’s tournament, top seed Simona Halep had to save three match points before surviving 4-6 6-4 15-13 against American world No.76 Lauren Davis.
The underdog lost some toenails. The favourite was also injured and brave. Halep was also ultimately successful in an epic encounter that lasted three hours and 45 minutes on Rod Laver Arena, the equal-longest - with the Chanda Rubin v Arantza Sanchez Vicario quarter-final from 1996 - Australian Open women’s match in terms of games played.
“Was very tough match. So long. I never played a third set so long,’’ said Halep. “So I’m really happy that I could stay and win it. I’m almost dead.
“I have no idea how much I run, I just know that my muscles are gone. My ankle… I can’t feel it any more. But it was nice to win and to again be in the fourth round of this tournament is great.’’
Her Australian coach, Darren Cahill labelled it a “magnificent” effort from players, the fight extraordinary, and tenacity remarkable. “It was just an heroic effort from both ladies, but really proud of Simona,’’ he said.
Having never played a match so lengthy, the Romanian faces a huge challenged to recover before Monday’s fourth round against either Ash Barty or Naomi Osaka. She had carried in a left ankle injury sustained in her opening round against wildcard Destanee Aiava, and dosed up on anti-inflammatories and pain-killers before she was even able to start.
“For sure they wore off by the end of the match,’’ said Cahill, who also coached Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi to No.1. “But she’s a tough chick.’’
Davis, the 24-year-old who has never passed the third round of a major, had three chances to close it out when returning at 11-10, and openings on the first two points she could not quite take.
Adding to the drama was an untimely pause at 11-11 when Davis lost the nail from the second toe on her right foot and called for a medical time-out, as Halep stayed out on court and made her own irritation and impatience clear.
But the Romanian has worked diligently with Cahill on keeping her emotions in check, and while the resumption of play was marked by a 22nd backhand winner from Davis, on the wing that had caused so much damage, Halep soon was forced to save a clutch of break points.
Indeed Halep does not take an 11-centimetre height advantage into many matches, but if the diminutive Davis is short on size, there is often surprising force on her groundstrokes, particularly off the backhand side.
Another medical time out was granted at the next changeover, Davis wincing as there were more repairs undertaken, but threatening again at 0-30 when she returned.
But these are chances that must be taken against opponents of Halep’s calibre, and finally, on the fourth attempt to serve the match out, a 73rd unforced error from her opponent’s racquet meant the dual Grand Slam runner-up finally did.
It will now be a matter of how she recovers, and manages her sore Achilles, but not only were her physical difficulties apparent against Davis, so was her immense resolve. For a player yet to win a Grand Slam title, there must have been moments in Saturday’s momentous arm-wrestle when Halep gravely doubted she would still around in the second week of this one.
But here she is. What an epic. And to both players, bravo.