MELBOURNE: Former champion Angelique Kerber is the player to beat as the Australian Open reaches the semifinals on Thursday, while second seed Caroline Wozniacki continues her long quest for a first major.
Romanian top seed Simona Halep, also in search of a first Grand Slam title, is the player tasked with stopping the German from reaching a second Australian Open final after winning in 2016.
Wozniacki, a semifinalist in 2011 who has never quite lived up to the hype in the majors, will need to overcome Belgian surprise package Elise Mertens, ranked 37, who is in the last four on her Australian Open debut.
The Dane is full of confidence after her biggest career win at last year’s season-ending WTA Tour finals.
She was impressive either side of a second-set blip as she beat gritty Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro 6-0, 6-7 (3/7), 6-2 to reach the last four.
Wozniacki won her only previous meeting with Mertens on clay last July in three sets.
“I remember playing her in Bastad. She’s a great player,” said the Dane who first became world number one in 2010. “She’s had a very good start to the year.”
Mertens, 22, defended her title in Hobart before the tournament and is on a 10-match winning streak.
She trains at the Kim Clijsters Academy and remarkably hasn’t lost in her last 18 matches on Australian soil dating to back to Hobart qualifying in 2017.
Mertens is yet to drop a set and blasted past world number four Elina Svitolina 6-4, 6-0 to become the first Belgian to make the semis since Clijsters in 2012.
“I’ve got nothing to lose, that’s for sure,” said Mertens who had never got beyond the third round in four previous Slam appearances. “I guess I’m a bit, well, the underdog. But I’m ready for it.”
Wozniacki and Mertens will square off in the first semifinals on Thursday afternoon with Kerber and Halep following on Rod Laver Arena.
Kerber, seeded 21 after a form slump in 2017, appears back to the dominant best that brought her two Grand Slam titles in 2016. She will go back into the top 10 after the tournament.
The only major winner left in the draw said she had fallen back in love with tennis and feels the same vibes as in her successful 2016 run when she toppled Serena Williams in the final.
“I’m proud how I got through all the last weeks and being in the semis again in a Grand Slam. So I’m feeling good,” she said.
On a 14-match win streak this year, the German juggernaut put her foot down to accelerate past US Open finalist Madison Keys in just 51 one-sided minutes 6-1, 6-2 in their quarter-final.
Halep was equally impressive in coming from 0-3 down against big-serving sixth seed Karolina Pliskova to rattle off 12 of the last 14 games in a 6-3, 6-2 win.
The Romanian, who in the third round saved three match points in surviving the longest match of the tournament, 15-13 in the final set against Lauren Davis, is expecting another drawn-out battle.
“For sure is going to be a second marathon this tournament,” said Halep. “But I’m used to that. I know her pretty well. I know she’s very strong opponent, very strong player. She likes it here.”