Simona Halep will play the Australian Open final. On its face, the fact of that doesn’t seem particularly remarkable or surprising. She is after all, the highest-ranked player in the world, the top seed at this tournament, and only a few months removed from her last major final. She has yet to lose a match in 2018. More salient, maybe, is the fact that defending champion Serena Williams won’t even be back until March. But the picture is more complicated than that.
Halep has a history of ankle issues, and, in her first round match against 17-year-old Destanne Aiava, her ankle briefly did a queasy imitation of raw pretzel dough. After sharing a choice screenshot of the injury with some medically-minded colleagues, their diagnoses included “I’m going to paint your windows black” and “Fuck you.” Watch the video and it’s hard to fathom how she even stayed in the match. She won it.
Halep won it with a 6-1 second set no less, then got a brief reprieve. She rolled right through Canadian celebrity Eugenie Bouchard, whose tenuous grasp on popular attention now appears to rely mostly on how long she can drawn out a pseudo-courtship with a Twitter enthusiast. But after that 6-2, 6-2 clinic, conditions went right back to brutal for Halep. In the third round she met the slight American Lauren Davis, wielding a two-hander that is one of the tour’s most satisfyingly savage shots—
—and together the two tested out the inhuman outer limits of the “no tiebreaks in the deciding set” policy. The two women played a three-hour, 45 minute ultra-marathon that cost Davis some toenails but produced the best tension of the tournament. The unseeded Davis couldn’t complete the upset on any of her three consecutive match points, and Halep survived 6-4, 4-6, 15-13, if barely. “My ankle,” she said after the match. “I can’t feel it any more.”
Halep later said the agony of her ankle made for a sleepless night after the win. But after a Sunday of rest, Halep stayed cogent enough against the ball-destroying young talent Naomi Osaka, emerging with a surprisingly tidy 6-3, 6-2 win. In the quarterfinals, Halep routed No. 6 seed Karolina Pliskova with the same score line. Today, in the semifinals, came Angelique Kerber, who was playing probably the most impenetrable tennis of anyone in the tournament until that point and had crushed several opponents with a hyper-resilient style that seemed to say, “I dare you to place the ball somewhere I can’t find it.” Kerber scrambles deftly to nullify would-be winners, seemingly yanked side to side along the baseline not by some invisible vaudeville cane but by sheer force of will.
This point below, where Kerber desperately breaks serve to stay in the match, best exemplifies her approach, but the whole rest of the reel is worth your time. By match’s end you start to see what these players are capable of when their bodies have almost nothing more to give.
Halep erased two of Kerber’s match points and capitalized on her own fourth to take this 6-3, 4-6, 9-7, somehow hitting 50 winners against a wall. She now enters her third Slam final with the intent of winning her first. The 26-year-old Halep seemed at risk to become one of the best players to never get one; very similar things could be said of her opponent, Caroline Wozniacki, the No. 2 seed, who is also Slamless and entering her third major final. Some deserving player will break that streak on Saturday. Either way, please put Simona Halep’s ankle in a glacier as soon as it’s over.