By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Breaking into a first final at a hardcourt Grand Slam would seem a good excuse for a jubilant post-match celebration but a small fist pump and a steely glance at the players box was all Garbine Muguruza allowed herself at the Australian Open on Thursday.
Muguruza continued her sudden and sparkling revival at the year’s first Grand Slam by downing Simona Halep 7-6(8) 7-5 in a semi-final played in scorching heat.
Unseeded as a result of a largely dismal 2019 season, Muguruza will meet the 14th seed, American Sofia Kenin, in Saturday’s title match, two and a half years on from the second of the Spaniard’s Grand Slam trophies at Wimbledon in 2017.
Muguruza came to Melbourne with low expectations following a viral illness that nearly scuppered her tournament before it began — but with one match to go, she is now on a mission.
“Well, definitely the mission is to get away from here with a big trophy,” the 26-year-old told reporters.
“But big or small celebration, it’s an incredible achievement.
“I believe in myself that I have what it takes to play these kind of matches and to be on this stage. You try to just keep it calm … I’m sure at the right moment there’s going to be a big celebration.
“For now, it’s keep it calm.”
She needed plenty of composure to overcome Halep, a fellow twice Grand Slam winner and former world number one, who dumped her out of the 2018 French Open semi-finals.
Muguruza saved two set points in the nerve-jangling tiebreak on Thursday and broke the Romanian as she served to level the match at 5-4 in the second set.
The heat remained suffocating as the afternoon wore on yet the Rod Laver Arena roof remained open.
The tournament’s confounding “Heat Stress Scale” peaked at 4.9, just short of the 5.0 rating that would have had the roof closed and given some relief to the players and fans frying in the terraces.
Compared to Halep, who lost her cool in a racket-smashing frenzy after losing the tiebreak, Muguruza handled the conditions as well as could be expected.
“Yes, it was very, very hot today and I felt it,” said Halep. “Killed me after the first set … The sun was strong.
“I didn’t like that much to play in this weather.”
Muguruza will be heavily backed to beat 21-year-old Kenin.
The American played superbly to knock out top seed and home hero Ash Barty in the earlier semi-final, having never before surpassed the fourth round of a Grand Slam.
Muguruza said her huge advantage in experience might not count for much during Saturday’s title match.
“(Experience) is something that not a lot of players can feel. But at the end, the racket has to speak out there,” she said.
“Even if you have 15 Grand Slams, you go out there and you have somebody that can beat you.”
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Pritha Sarkar)