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Muguruza hunts down Halep to reach AO2020 final

  • Reem Abulleil

Garbine Muguruza survived a tug-o-war with world No.3 Simona Halep on Thursday to reach her first Grand Slam final in two-and-a-half years, and her first at the Australian Open.

The Venezuelan-born Spaniard, unseeded at a major for the first time since 2014, needed two hours and five minutes to overcome Halep 7-6(8) 7-5 and set up a final showdown against No.14 seed Sofia Kenin.

MORE: Barty, Halep focus on learning rather than lament

She brought her aggressive brand of tennis to Rod Laver Arena, winning 20/30 net points and striking 39 winners.

The 32nd-ranked Muguruza battled back from a break in the second set and broke Halep as she was serving for it to maintain her clean record against the Romanian on hard courts.

“I wasn’t thinking I was down, at some point you’ll have your opportunities. I knew facing Simona it was going to be a hard match. I was hanging in there and fighting with all the energy I had,” said Muguruza after the match.

Muguruza navigated a difficult path in her first week in Melbourne as she dealt with a viral illness that forced her out of the Hobart semifinals in the build-up to the Australian Open.

Did she imagine she would make it this far considering how tough it was for her early on?

“You don’t think like that. That’s almost two weeks ago. You go day by day and that’s what I was doing each match at a time. I’m very excited to be in the final, it’s a long way to go and I have one more match on Saturday,” said the two-time Grand Slam champion.

Simona Halep shows her frustration

Muguruza had to save two break points in her opening service game to hold for 1-1. Halep had to do the same to avoid getting broken in game five but she let up a few minutes later as Muguruza took the initiative and broke for a 4-3 advantage. The Spaniard fought off a break point to consolidate her advantage.

Serving for the set, Muguruza was broken at love, her cunning drop shot clipping the net and falling on her side to get Halep back on level terms.

A brilliant cross-court forehand from Halep drew the error from Muguruza to earn the Romanian two set points. Muguruza aced to escape the first and survived a 17-shot rally to save the second.

The set fittingly went to a tiebreak and Muguruza wasted no time in going up 3-0. Halep responded by taking the next four points but it was Muguruza who go two set points, thanks to a service winner that gave her a 6-4 lead. The first one slipped away and Halep pulled off a stunning forehand winner that painted the sideline to save the second.

Muguruza found her serve once again to save a third set point, but gifted Halep a fourth with a double fault moments later. A brutal exchange of 20 shots ended with Halep sending a forehand wide and the Romanian could not hide her frustration, angrily reacting towards her box.

Muguruza took the opportunity to create a third set point for herself and this time, the Spaniard did not falter, closing out the set on the 67-minute mark. It was the first set Halep lost all tournament.

Halep was under pressure early in the second set, but staved off two break points to hold for 1-1. It fueled something in the No.4 seed, who sped to a 0-40 lead on the Muguruza serve the very next game. The first two break points didn’t go Halep’s way but she converted on her third chance to inch forward 2-1. Muguruza pegged her back immediately but couldn’t shake off her opponent and fell behind once again after a lengthy fifth game.

Halep finally confirmed her break by holding for 4-2. Serving for the second set, Halep brushed aside three break points but Muguruza pounced on her fourth opportunity to level for 5-5. The 26-year-old ran away with the next two games to wrap up the win and record her fourth victory from six meetings with Halep. It is Muguruza’s third top-10 success of the fortnight.

It was a taxing battle in high temperatures but Muguruza is confident she can be ready for Kenin on Saturday.

“Luckily I have 48 hours now to recover and get ready for the last match. We train all of our career to be able to play on this court, in front of this crowd,” she said.

Muguruza’s celebration was understated – a clear indication of how focused she is on finishing the job and lifting the trophy on Saturday.

“Definitely the mission is to get away from here with a big trophy. But big or small celebration, it's an incredible achievement,” said Muguruza.

“It really depends of how you're feeling. I believe in myself that I have what it takes to play these kind of matches and to be in this stage. You try to just keep it calm. There's many more matches to go. I'm sure the right moment there's going to be a big celebration. For now, it's keep it calm.”

Halep returns to No.2 in the world when the new rankings are released on Monday. She rued her missed chances and the leads she squandered.

“To lose like this hurts more, definitely. I'm in pain now, I have to admit. But life is going on,” said Halep.

“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. I think it was a good match for both of us, but she was stronger in the end. In the important moments she played a little bit more braver.”