So much on the line when Wozniacki takes on Halep in Aussie Open final

MELBOURNE, Australia -- After drilling a forehand into the net and coming up short in a game in which she served for the match, Angelique Kerber dropped to her knees in sheer exhaustion. Lifting her head, she glanced to her left and caught a glimpse of the equally spent Simona Halep, who was bent over, propped up only by her racket.

That's the moment that pretty much summed up Thursday's second women's semifinal match at the Australian Open. Halep, the tournament's top seed and the No. 1 player in the world, was the last woman standing after surviving her match against Kerber in three sets 6-3, 4-6, 9-7 to advance to the championship on Saturday.

And here's what Halep's gut check guaranteed tennis fans: a high-stakes matchup against Caroline Wozniacki, who earlier in the day beat Elise Mertens 6-3, 7-6 (2).

Now, either Halep or Wozniacki is assured of winning her first ever Grand Slam title.

There so many juicy tidbits tied to Saturday's championship match:

• The winner will not only hold the Australian Open trophy, but will walk away as the No. 1 player in the world.

• It will be the first crowning of a first-time Australian Open champion since Hana Mandlikova beat Wendy Turnbull in 1980.

• Halep could become the first Australian Open champion to save match point against two different opponents during that year's run.

    In fact, both players have saved match points over these past two weeks, and the winner will become just the seventh player in the Open era to win an Aussie Open title after saving match point.

    Two players.

    Multiple layers of mental and physical hurdles overcome.

    One new Grand Slam champion.

    It sounds like a plug for "Survivor." Tournament officials might want to consider a torch-snuffing ceremony at the end of the championship match.

    Wozniacki enters the final feeling like she's playing with house money. And it's not because she's won a couple hundred dollars in the casino this week; it has more to do with surviving her second-round match against Jana Fett when she was down 5-1 in the third set and facing two match points.

    In the semifinal, it was another mental, and physical, challenge she had to overcome, as she was serving for the match up 5-4 in the second set.

    Wozniacki lost the next two games, and there was a collective "uh-oh" vibe throughout the arena.

    Here in 2011, she faced the same situation in the same place. Playing as the No. 1 seed in a first major at the time, Wozniacki completely collapsed, losing that match to Li Na.

    She thought about that as she faced two set points against Mertens.

    "Seven years on," Wozniacki said of the memories of 2011, "and it's still here."

    There was no third set this time as Wozniacki battled back to force the set into a tiebreaker, which she easily won.

    "I managed to just gather myself," she said. "And thankfully closed it."

    For Halep, the challenges in her semifinal match -- and throughout the tournament -- were physical. And for anyone who ever dares to question her toughness, she need only to slip them the tape of these last two weeks.

    First, she survived that hard-to-watch ankle roll in her first-round win over Destanee Aiava.

    Two rounds later, Halep came back from a set down and fought off three match points to beat American Lauren Davis in a battle that featured a tournament record-tying 48 games and a third set that lasted 2 hours, 23 minutes. It was the best match of this tournament.

    On Thursday, Halep faced two more match points in the semifinal against Kerber -- making it a total of five for the tournament -- including one in that crucial game in the third set. Halep won that game, making the score 6-6 and survived four more back-and-forth games before prevailing.

    "I had two moments where I felt the match was over," Halep said. "I had no power and everything was gone."

    It's how she felt against Davis as well.

    But, still, Halep's here.

    So the 2018 Australian Open will see a new champion crowned, even though neither appeared overly excited about the possibility after their matches.

    Asked about what it's like to be on the verge of winning her first major, Wozniacki, who has lost her two previous finals attempts, shrugged in what is potentially a career-changing moment.

    "It's another finals; it's another great two weeks," Wozniacki said. "Regardless of what happens now, I've done my best."

    Asked the same question a few hours later, Halep was just as nonchalant.

    "It's just another match," she said. "In this moment, it doesn't matter. Just the fact that I won this match and I can play the final again."

    Don't believe the (lack of) hype.

    Wozniacki has to be excited. She's been the No. 1 player for 67 weeks in her career and once held that spot for 49 consecutive weeks. She owns 27 titles, including her biggest one to date, last year's WTA Finals crown.

    Yet as our friends at FiveThirtyEight have pointed out, she is in the conversation of being the greatest tennis player without a Grand Slam title.

    Halep, the world's top-ranked player the past 16 weeks, also has reached two previous Grand Slam titles, losing the French Open in 2014 and 2017.

    Then there's this: The greatest player in the world, Serena Williams, isn't here. Just a few days ago, she said she'll make a return to competitive tennis next month representing the United States in a Fed Cup competition against the Netherlands.

    Serena's coming back. Soon. She expects to be ready for the next three Grand Slam tournaments.

    The return of the queen is looming.

    And she's going to be hungry.

    For Wozniacki and Halep, the best time to eat is right here, right now.