By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Garbine Muguruza continued her stunning revival at the Australian Open on Thursday as she fought off Simona Halep 7-6(8) 7-5 in a battle of attrition to reach her first Australian Open final in broiling heat.
The unseeded Spaniard arrived at Melbourne Park with low expectations but will now face American 14th seed Sofia Kenin in Saturday’s title match for a chance to clinch her third major title after a period in the Grand Slam wilderness.
With the temperature nudging 40 degrees Celsius (104F) at a scorching Rod Laver Arena, Muguruza was dragged into a see-sawing scrap by fourth seed Halep, who threatened to run away with the second set after losing her cool at the end of the first.
However, the Spaniard who scaled Mount Kilimanjaro in the offseason had the endurance to match Halep and ended up avenging her semi-final loss to the Romanian at the 2018 French Open.
Down 5-4 in the second set, Muguruza rallied and blasted through the dogged Romanian’s defenses, breaking her twice in the finish to avoid a third set in sweltering conditions.
“I wasn’t thinking I was down. I was thinking, ‘Keep going and at some point you’re going to have your opportunity’,” said Muguruza.
“I know I was facing Simona so it was going to be a hard match. So I was just hanging in there and fighting with all the energy I had.”
The 26-year-old Muguruza would not have been on many lists of pre-tournament contenders but the class and fighting spirit that saw her hoist the 2016 French Open and 2017 Wimbledon trophies has come flooding back in Australia.
“You start day by day, that’s what I was doing,” said Muguruza, who reunited with former coach Conchita Martinez in the offseason.
“Very excited to be in the final, it’s a long way to go. I have one more match on Saturday.”
Like world number one Ash Barty, who failed to convert four set points in her semi-final against Kenin, Halep was left to rue a slew of missed chances.
She let two set points go begging in the tiebreak against an opponent she had never beaten on hardcourts.
She saved a couple herself but with Muguruza a sitting duck at the net, Halep slapped an attempted pass into the net to fall a set behind.
Enraged with herself, the Romanian bashed her racket into the court twice to earn a code violation and returned to her chair fuming.
“I think maybe I could have been a little bit more brave in the points that were important,” Wimbledon champion Halep told reporters.
“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.”
The pair traded breaks early in the second set before Halep nudged ahead and steeled herself to level the match on serve.
She saved three break points as Muguruza ratcheted up the pressure but finally buckled with a pair of unforced errors.
Having stolen the momentum, Muguruza rode it to the finish, rushing forward to coax Halep into another ill-fated pass on the second match point.
Muguruza, the only woman to beat Venus and Serena Williams in Grand Slam finals, will play her first major title match since her Wimbledon triumph.
“Definitely the mission is to get away from here with a big trophy,” she said.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford and Pritha Sarkar)