MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – Caroline Wozniacki came through a late bout of nerves to reach the Australian Open final for a first time with a 6-3, 7-6 (7-2) victory over Belgian Elise Mertens on Thursday, giving herself another shot at winning a maiden Grand Slam title.
The Dane had dominated her second Melbourne Park semifinal until she was 5-4, 30-0 up and serving for the match but suddenly faltered with a pair of double faults to allow her 22-year-old opponent back into the contest.
Mertens, playing only her fifth Grand Slam, took full advantage and, unleashing a string of winners, broke the former world No. 1 and racked up two set points.
Unlike in her 2011 semifinal against Li Na, when she blew a match point, Wozniacki was able to recover her composure and saved them both on the back of a couple of booming serves.
After four deuces, the 27-year-old held with a thumping forehand then raced away with the ensuing tiebreak to seal a title-decider against Simona Halep.
“I got really tired at 5-4,” she said on court. “After the two first good serves, I thought, ‘Calm down, it’s all good’, then it kind of wasn’t good any more.
“I felt like my legs were shaking a little bit. I was like OK, ‘This is not normal, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do now,’ I just took a few deep breaths and once she had set point, I said, ‘Well, I guess it is the third set. I guess now you just need to go for it’.
“(The 2011 match) was definitely on my mind out there today — Li Na. I tried to stay calm and I was lucky to get a win.
Wozniacki has yet to win a Grand Slam title despite spending 67 weeks as world No. 1 and is the only player to have won more than 25 WTA titles without claiming a major title.
Simona Halep has advanced to her first Australian Open final after saving two match points and rallying to defeat Angelique Kerber 3-6, 6-4, 9-7 in the second women’s semifinal.
Both women had their chances to put the match away in the 68-minute-long third set.
Halep was serving for the match at 5-3, but was broken after Kerber ended a 26-stroke rally with a backhand winner that just clipped the line. The German player then fell to her knees and put her forehead on the court in exhaustion.
Halep had two match points in the next game, but Kerber saved the first with a backhand down the line and the second when Halep hit into the net.
Also Thursday, Marin Cilic joined an elite group at the season-opening Grand Slam, becoming just the second man outside the so-called Big Four to reach the Australian Open final in a decade.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have dominated the finals here since 2009, with only 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka breaking the quartet’s court occupation in the men’s championship match.
After his 6-2, 7-6 (7-4), 6-2 semifinal win over No. 49-ranked Kyle Edmund, Cilic could face one of the Big Four on Sunday night. That’s if defending champion Roger Federer can get past Hyeon Chung on Friday night.
“Now I have two days off — it’s going to be a nice one on Sunday,” he said.
Cilic lost to Federer in last year’s Wimbledon final, but beat the Swiss star on the way to his own Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open in 2014.
The 29-year-old Cilic was under pressure early against Edmund and had to fend off break points in the opening game. He held and quickly got on top in the first set and, after maintaining his composure in a nervy second set tiebreaker, quickly established a break in the third set against the tiring British player.
“I think in that second set, I was just a little up and down with my game. I wasn’t getting enough returns back to put pressure on him in his service games,” Cilic said. “I noticed that in the third game in third set, when I broke him, he just let a couple balls go past him. … I was seeing with this movement he was a little bit restricted so I just tried to move the ball around.”
Cilic didn’t face another break point after the opening game and took advantage of his experience, while Edmund got heated in his first major semifinal, arguing with the chair umpire over a call in the fifth game of the second set and demanding the tournament supervisor come onto court to explain the ruling.
Wins over U.S. Open runner-up Kevin Anderson in the first round and in the quarterfinal over No. 3-seeded Grigor Dimitrov took a toll on Edmund, but Cilic praised him for a breakthrough major.
“He’s playing great tennis, last couple years he improved a lot.” Cilic said. “He had an extremely tough run to the semis, couple five setters and four setters, as well. Definitely it left some scars on his body. I can feel that, too.”
It took Cilic 10 attempts to reach the final in Australia, equaling an Open era record held by Kim Wawrick. He lost a semifinal in 2010 to Murray, and said he benefited from the experience.