By Justin Bergman, Associated Press
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Simona Halep saved three match points in her exhausting, nearly four-hour match against Lauren Davis in the third round and then another two match points in her gutsy, come-from-behind semifinal win over Angelique Kerber at the Australian Open.
When it came time to do the same against Caroline Wozniacki in the final, Halep's luck had finally run out. The top-seeded Romanian hit a backhand error on the first match point she faced Saturday night, falling short in a major final yet again 7-6 (2), 3-6, 6-4.
Halep was naturally upset after the match, but then she reflected on her arduous journey over the past two weeks.
"I can still smile," she said. "It's fine. I cried, but now I'm smiling."
The 26-year-old Romanian, who will also lose her No. 1 ranking to Wozniacki after the tournament, is now 0-3 in major finals. In each of these matches, she's been the favorite, and each time, she's had her chances to win it.
Her first defeat was a three-setter to Maria Sharapova at the 2014 French Open. Then came a loss to unseeded Jelena Ostapenko at last year's French Open, when Halep was up a break in both the second and third sets.
Though Halep was also up by a break and serving at 4-3 in the third set of Saturday's loss to Wozniacki, she doesn't blame herself for faltering this time. After spending 11½ hours on court through six matches — more time than Roger Federer in the men's draw — Halep said she just hit a wall.
"The body was not ready because I had so many long matches," she said. "The muscles were tired. The feet were not good enough. But mentally I was ready. I feel that I can face any challenge. I can play against anyone. I can win against anyone."
Halep has spoken many times during the tournament about the new approach she's been taking with the help of coach Darren Cahill this year, from the aggressive, go-for-broke style of play she embraced match after match to the calm facade she worked hard to maintain even in her most frustrated moments.
The changes for "New Simona," as she calls herself, have paid off. Not previously known for her power, she hit an eye-catching 90 winners in the semifinals and final combined, including 12 aces — stats that surprised even her.
And instead of getting down on herself as she has in the past, losing her temper and then her focus, Halep looked noticeably composed throughout the tournament. This is perhaps the biggest improvement for the emotional Halep, whose negativity had caused Cahill to temporarily split with her last year.
"I think was different with everything," she said, comparing this defeat with her French Open final losses. "I played better. I didn't move as I wanted because I couldn't. But the game was OK. The mental part was OK. So I think I have improved a lot this tournament.
"I'm leaving Australia with many good thoughts and many positive things because what I've done these two weeks I never did in the past."
Other women's players have been in her situation before. Kim Clijsters lost four Grand Slam finals before finally winning her first title. Chris Evert had lost three.
This doesn't give the ultra-competitive Halep comfort, however. She just laughs — again — and says her time is now.
"I want to win. I'm still losing and I'm still waiting," she said. "Maybe the fourth one will be with luck."