LITTLE WOMEN, BIG MATCH – Halep Douses Davis’ Fire in Thrilling Classic

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Photo by PAUL CROCK/AFP/Getty Images

Bill Simons

It was a mercurial delight, swift and almost unending. In a tennis world of large, looming players who pound and blast with an often dreary ferocity, Simona Halep and Lauren Davis are small and slight wonders – fast and gritty. They run like the wind and defend with a “nothin’s gonna get by me” fury. Long rallies and breathless shotmaking is their thing. They create more angles then a geometry guru. One asks: “Is scampering a weapon in tennis?”

Well, just check out Halep, who is No. 1 in the world, or Davis, who is No. 76, and who has never broken into the top 25, but scampers like a water bug. Today the tennis world tuned in to see the longest women’s match in the history of the Australian Open, a classic 3:45, 4-6, 6-4, 15-13 win by the rallying Romanian, Halep.

Still, Davis did the US proud. After all, 14 American women – including Venus, Sloane and Coco – exited in the first round: calamity! And the biggest name in the US game, Serena Williams, was back in San Francisco hitting balls, and the No. 17 seed Madison Keys had long ago beaten Ana Bogdan to reach the fourth round.

So all eyes were on a Midwesterner from the middle of the pack, an Ohio athlete who was unseeded and virtually unknown. In the past, she may have been best known for the fact that her dad wrote the introduction to Novak Djokovic’s fitness book.

Never mind that Davis has been on the tour for eight years – today we got an introduction to a big-hearted athlete as tiny as a jockey or a gymnast, a Lebron-loving blaster from Cleveland who was rocking it. “This river is on fire,” quipped Jon Wertheim.

Today all eyes were on little Davis, who did to Halep what the Romanian usually does to others. She used her wheels, her defense and big down-the-line backhand to capture the first set 6-4. But Davis botched a sitter volley to a wide-open court in the second set that opened the door for the feisty Halep, who evened the match 6-4, 4-6, to set the table for an epic third set.

And here the play became sublime.

It was a dynamic delight, swift and almost unending. Scrambling and defending, both players ran corner to corner and played fabulous defense. Nothing got past them. Their ten- and twenty-stroke rallies were like kinetic chess points: riveting and dramatic. Never mind that Halep had turned her ankle badly early in the tourney and the still Slamless vet has suffered some punishing setbacks. And forget that she was often on her heels against the more aggressive Davis and that she had never gone beyond 6-6 in the final set of a Slam.

Davis was unblinking as she fought to stay in the battle. But there’s a reason Halep’s atop the rankings. The 26-year-old has matured beautifully under the tough-love tutelage of her on-again off-again coach, Darren Cahill. “I am here with my heart,” she would later tell ESPN. Still, Simona was down 11-10 and Lauren had three match points.

In the past, Halep admitted, she might not have fought. Instead, today, despite all that was on the line, she managed to relax at crunch time.

“It’s really tough when the opponent has match ball,” she told Inside Tennis. “It’s really tough to think about the tactic anymore, about how to play the next point, you just go there and hit without thinking…The pressure was on and I was a little bit stronger in that moment, for sure.”

So Davis not only lost her great opportunity to beat the No. 1 player in the world. She also simultaneously lost her toenail, and during the subsequent medical timeout the seasoned Halep, who reached last year’s French Open final, managed to gather herself – and unleash a series of laser forehands which enabled her to break serve and douse Davis’ fire. Her 4-6, 6-4, 15-13 win was a record-setting classic – the second longest set in Australian Open history and equal to the longest final set in Aussie Open history.

Halep was thrilled, but exhausted. “I’m almost dead,” she said. “My muscles are gone. I don’t feel my ankle anymore.”

But today, we all got to see that you don’t have to be a muscular six-footer to amaze.

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