— -- MELBOURNE, Australia -- Sometimes the starter is better than the main course. And sometimes the starter is so fantastic, you don't even need anything else.
On a Saturday menu boasting Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova and Novak Djokovic, the fans who packed into Rod Laver Arena for the opening match of the day witnessed the best match of the Australian Open so far, men or women, as Simona Halep and Lauren Davis ran side to side, forward and back, up and down until, mercifully, one of them fell.
The 3-hour, 45-minute match lasted 48 games, tying the battle between American Chanda Rubin and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario in 1996 for the most at the Australian Open in the Open.
"It made me feel tired all over again," said Rubin, who called the match for Australian Open Radio.
The final set alone lasted 2 hours, 22 minutes as both women pushed their bodies to the limit. Davis, an American ranked No. 76 but as high as 26 last summer, had a bloody toe on each foot, while Halep fought cramps at the end of the match. Somehow Halep, the world No. 1, saved three match points in an eventual 4-6, 6-4, 15-13 victory.
"Honestly, I thought it's over at that moment, but was good because I relaxed my arm and I served pretty well those three balls," Halep said. "And then she took the medical [timeout]. I had time to calm down. I had come to believe again, to restart the mind.
"And also I found more energy after that three-minutes break. But at 13-all, when I took the game, I said it's my lucky number, so it's going to be two in a row now."
The match ended when Davis sent a forehand wide. The standing ovation inside Rod Laver Arena was long and loud. And deserved.
"I have never played a match like that before where it went so long in the third set," Davis said. "We were both fighting our hearts out, and, I mean, every point was just super long.?I got to the point where I was so tired, I just told myself to swing and move and for the most part it was very effective. That third set was nothing really like I had ever played before, such an amazing atmosphere."
Realistically, no one expected drama in this match, and certainly not to this extent. At times, it was like watching the computer game Pong, where the ball comes back no matter where it is hit. At 5-foot-6, Halep is among the shorter players on tour, but Davis is listed at 5-2. What they lack in height, they make up for in astounding speed, retrieving everything that came their way.
In all, there were 61 rallies of nine or more shots, and both players ran just about 2.5 miles on the court, leaving both women shattered.
"It was definitely a very tough match," Halep said. "I never played the third set so long. I'm really happy I could stay and win it. I'm almost dead."
Hardly. In two days, the world No. 1 will be back on court. And for her sake, hopefully not feeling the effects on marathon Saturday.