MELBOURNE, Australia, Jan 30 – Garbine Muguruza said she revelled in the underdog role after the unseeded former world number one battled into her first Australian Open final on Thursday.
The 26-year-old Spaniard fought back in both sets to defeat fourth seed Simona Halep 7-6 (10/8), 7-5 and set up a championship decider with surprise-package Sofia Kenin on Saturday.
Muguruza is unseeded at a Grand Slam for the first time since 2014 after her ranking slipped to 36 at the end of a poor 2019 by her high standards.
That meant a tricky path to the final in Melbourne, where temperatures soared close to 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) on Thursday.
“It’s difficult, you never know who you’re going to face right away, not being seeded,” said the two-time Grand Slam winner.
“I knew whatever match, it was going to be tough, even how I started the tournament not feeling well.
“I’m happy to not be in the spotlight, it’s good.”
Muguruza was hindered by a viral illness in her tournament opener and lost the first set 6-0 to American qualifier Shelby Rogers. But she recovered her form and fitness to beat three top-10 seeds on her run to the final.
Muguruza, who was restrained in her celebrations, is the first unseeded player to reach the Melbourne women’s final since Belgium’s Justine Henin in 2010.
Muguruza and Halep, two former French Open and Wimbledon champions, were too close to split in a nervy first set at a steamy Rod Laver Arena.
Muguruza squandered two set points in the tie-break while saving two more for Halep, and then clinched it with a stop volley that the Romanian couldn’t get back over the net.
It was the first set that Halep — also a former number one — had dropped all week and she reacted by mangling her racquet and slumped in her chair, shaking her head.
The 28-year-old recovered her poise and broke Muguruza for a 3-2 lead in the second set, before Muguruza broke back and then held to make it 6-5.
Halep, so serene in Melbourne up until now, cracked as she served to stay in the tournament, netting a backhand as Muguruza surged forward on the second match point.
– Barty pooper –
Earlier Kenin, the feisty American 14th seed, stunned world number one and home hope Ashleigh Barty 7-6 (8/6), 7-5 to reach her first Grand Slam final.
Moscow-born Kenin, 21, the last American left in Melbourne, was the party pooper once more.
She had already brought the fairytale run of 15-year-old Coco Gauff to an end in the fourth round with the aggressive style of play that has become her trademark over the past fortnight.
Kenin looked shell-shocked in the immediate aftermath of victory over Barty, saying: “She’s such a tough player, she’s playing really amazing. I knew I had to really find a way to win.
“I’m just speechless, I honestly can’t believe this. I’ve dreamed about this moment since I was five years old.”
“I’ve worked so hard to get here,” added Kenin. “I really had to fight out here. There’s a reason she’s number one.”
Kenin, who had a breakthrough 2019, winning her first three WTA titles, was contesting her first Grand Slam semi-final, and it was Barty’s first time in the last four in Melbourne.
But if the locals hoped Kenin would be cowed by the occasion and her top-ranked opponent, the French Open champion, they were to be mistaken.