By BRUCE MATTHEWS
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) – It didn’t surprise Angelique Kerber that she would rediscover her tennis mojo in Australia.
She will take good vibes as well as a narrow head-to-head edge onto Rod Laver Arena for her Australian Open semifinal match against top-seeded Simona Halep on Thursday.
“I feel good here. This is a special one because I won here, my first Grand Slam,” said Kerber, who beat Serena Williams in the 2016 Australian Open final and also won the U.S. Open later that year. She’s the only major still in the women’s draw, but that’s been the case since she beat Maria Sharapova in the third round.
After slipping from No. 1 to 21 in the rankings during a barren 2017, Kerber has started the new year strongly, winning four matches at the Hopman Cup mixed team tournament in Perth, five victories on the way to the Sydney International title and now another five matches so far at Melbourne Park.
“Í was working hard in the off-season and I know I can win close matches, going out there and playing good in the bigger tournaments,” Kerber said.
Halep, a two-time French Open finalist, is aiming for another shot at a first Grand Slam title after quickly overcoming a slow start to beat sixth-seeded Karolina Pliskova 6-3 6-2 in the quarterfinals.
And Kerber, equally dominant against in a 6-1, 6-2 win over U.S. Open finalist Madison Keys, takes no comfort from the 5-4 head-to-head lead on Halep despite winning five of the past six matches. The latest of those was a 6-4 6-2 win at the 2016 end-of-season WTA championship.
“I think it will be a long match with a lot of long rallies. I played against her for a lot of times and it was always tough and close,” Kerber said.
Halep has been bothered by an ankle ailment and had to fend off match points in a third-round win over Lauren Davis that finished 15-13 in the third, but said she has “started to feel the rhythm and everything and I was more aggressive” in her quarterfinal win.
On the match against Kerber, she said: “She likes it here and I’m starting to like this tournament, too. I’m ready, I feel strong mentally.”
Caroline Wozniacki is hoping to edge closer to that elusive first Grand Slam singles title in the other semifinal against unseeded Elise Mertens.
At No. 36, Mertens is the lowest-ranked player of the last four in the women’s singles, but she has shown she’s not overawed by anyone in the tournament and is physically and mentally in good shape.
The 22-year-old Mertens, who jumped 91 ranking places last year, conserved energy during the tournament’s often stifling heat, not dropping a set before beating fourth-seeded Elina Svitolina 6-4, 6-0 to reach a Grand Slam semifinal at just her fifth attempt and on her first visit to Melbourne Park.
Second-seeded Wozniacki is playing her sixth Grand Slam semifinal match, and only second at the Australian Open.
“I have to serve well, return well. Stay aggressive, make her move,” Wozniacki said.
A finalist at the U.S. Open in 2009 and 2014, Wozniacki needed three sets to beat Mertens on clay in a semifinal in Bastad, Sweden last year at their only previous meeting.
“She’s very talented, obviously, had a very good tournament. It’s going to be very difficult, but I’m excited for the challenge and excited for playing the semifinals,” she said.
Wozniacki dismissed any notions of tiredness after finally wrapping up her 6-0, 6-7 (3), 6-2 quarterfinal win against Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro in the early hours of Wednesday morning, forced to wait and follow the Rafael Nadal-Marin Cilic five-setter on Rod Laver Arena.
The day off in between matches didn’t hurt, she said, “I can sleep in, reset. I’m not really too worried.”
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