Halep One Win Away From Regaining World No. 1

MIAMI, March 28, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)

When Simona Halep faced Wang Qiang in the quarterfinals of the Miami Open presented by Itaú on Wednesday afternoon, her focus not only was on reaching the semifinals. It also included the Romanian’s desire to reclaim the No. 1 ranking in the world, which she surrendered to current No. 1 Naomi Osaka after the Australian Open in January.

With World No. 2 Petra Kvitova eliminated by Ashleigh Barty a day earlier, the third-ranked Halep remained the only player left in the draw able to surpass Osaka, who bowed out in the third round to Hsieh Su-Wei of Taiwan. Halep simply needed to reach the Miami final, doing what she’s done all fortnight – just win.

And win she did.

Halep came back from down 1-5 and saved three set points at 4-5 (0-40) in the second set. Despite losing her way at times, when it seemed the No. 18 seed Wang was going to take the match to a decider, Halep pulled off the nearly-impossible task of running the table against the Chinese No. 1 by winning the final six games of the match – including 25 of the final 31 points – en route to an impressive 6-4, 7-5 victory in one hour and 37 minutes. Talk about a dramatic turnaround by Halep in her second win in as many meetings against Wang.

The diminutive but powerful Halep overcame 34 unforced errors by hitting 24 winners, and she won seven of eight break-point opportunities against Wang while saving seven break-points. Meanwhile, Wang hit 14 winners and committed 25 unforced errors. Halep outpointed her opponent 76-67 in a battle characterized by a number of fiercely contested baseline rallies.

“I played smart and tried to open up the court. It went very well,” said Halep during her on-court interview with ESPN afterward. “After (Wang) won five games to go ahead, I reverted to what I did best in the first set.”

By advancing to Thursday’s semifinal against No. 5 seed Karolina Pliskova, who beat Czech teen Marketa Vondrousova in Wednesday’s other quarterfinal contest, Halep is just one win away from regaining the No. 1 ranking, ahead of the beginning of the clay season.

“Playing in the semifinals is going to be a big challenge,” Halep said. “Maybe, I can do my best results and make the finals. It’s going to be a big match next round. I’ll be ready. 

“It’s fun. I enjoy this tournament. If I play my best tennis, I have a chance to become No. 1 again, but it’s not on my mind. I just want to find my rhythm and just play as good as I can.”

Under partly cloudy skies and springlike 75-degree (Fahrenheit) weather that spread across the Hard Rock Stadium court, Halep raced to a 4-1 lead in the first set on the strength of three service breaks against Wang, whom she had faced just once and beat. (It came last year at Indian Wells in the round of 16, which Halep won 7-5, 6-1.)

Later, in a set characterized by tough rallies – none more so that a 24-shot back-and-forth rally during Halep’s final service game of the opening set – she won it 6-4 in 45 minutes by being the steadier player. It should be noted that while Wang defended against Halep impeccably, making her work for her points, the World No. 3 looked determined and locked in. One should never underestimate the power of Halep’s solid forehands and topspun backhand returns.

In the second set, Wang raced out to a 5-1 lead, hitting winners from all over the court – at one time winning 12 straight points – as the momentum had clearly swung her way. She started to use her own power and broke Halep twice while winning five straight games.

Then, without any warning, everything began going in Halep’s favor. Quickly and with purpose, she began her comeback, game by game, winning 12 points in a row to get back on serve at 4-5. Yet, when Wang held three set points, the match seemed destined to go the distance. It didn’t. Halep saved each of the set points with a variety of shots from her arsenal. She evened the set at 5-all with what the WTA Insider described as “a breathtaking backhand winner down the line, bunted into the far corner at full stretch.” From there, it was just a matter of time before Halep closed out her comeback win, which was her 16th of the year and fourth of this remarkable fortnight.

Halep’s fighting spirit lives on in South Florida as she’s advanced to her second Miami Open semifinal and first since 2015.

Pliskova powers into semifinals 

World No. 7 Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic won her 20th match of the year in remarkable fashion, beating teenaged compatriot Marketa Vondrousova, 6-3, 6-4, as she won six of the final seven games to overcome a 0-3 deficit in the second set. The victory advanced the No. 5 seed Pliskova into her second Miami Open semifinal in three years. It was just Vondrousova’s second loss in her last 10 matches.

“I think the first set was very close. I was just holding my serve and not all the games were easy,” said Pliskova on court following her victory. “After the first set, I took a little bit of a break for a few games; she played well. Then, I tried to play a little more aggressive when I was down 3-0 and it worked.”

Pliskova, who has won eight of her last 10 competitions against lefties, improved her record in Miami to 17-6 (she’s played the Open seven times). She came into her match with the No. 59 Vondrousova second on tour with 164 aces. The big serving Pliskova added three more to that total as she won 68 percent of her first serves and saved four of the five break points she faced during the 80-minute match.

Meanwhile, Pliskova broke Vondrousova three times, and while the 19-year-old played fearless – trying to enjoy the moment of her second consecutive WTA Premier Mandatory quarterfinal – there were times where she just didn’t look comfortable being on the Hard Rock Stadium court in front of large crowd. The loss dropped her record to a very respectable 13-4 and she’s reached the quarterfinals in three of her four tournaments this season.

While each of Pliskova’s last two matches – against Alizé Cornet and Yulia Putintseva – went three sets, against Vondrousova, Pliskova took control early and came on strong at the end. She outpointed Vondrousova 66-55.

Next, Pliskova faces Halep in a Top 10 showdown semifinal Thursday night in the Stadium. She’s moved up three spots to No. 4 in the live rankings, but has only beaten Halep twice in nine tries.

“I practiced with Simona before the tournament and I lost 0-6,” said Pliskova. “So it can only get better.”

Kontaveit’s game headed in right direction

When Anett Kontaveit walks out on the Hard Rock Stadium court to face No. 12 seed Ashleigh Barty on Thursday afternoon, the No. 21 seed from Tallinn, Estonia, will be appearing in her first WTA Premier Mandatory semifinal. Her game, it seems, is headed in the right direction.

Kontaveit, 23, is winning matches – four here in Miami and three earlier this month at Indian Wells, in which she reached the round of 16. She’s 11-6 overall this season. Her in-form run of good fortune this fortnight started with wins over Amanda Anisimova and Ajla Tomljanovic, and continued with her abbreviated win by retirement over Bianca Andrescu. In Tuesday’s quarterfinals, Kontaveit earned a come-back win against the always challenging-but-entertaining Hsieh Su-Wei.

Looking back, her triumph over the No. 27 seed Hsieh probably wasn’t the best match she’s ever played, but … “I’m so happy to be through it,” Kontaveit said during her post-match press conference. “I feel like I fought really well and I never gave up. I’m really, really happy with the improvements I’m making, and being more positive with myself, whatever the score is, and all these little things that are getting better.”

Kontaveit owns a 2-1 head-to-head advantage against Barty, who comes in 8-2 in her last 10 matches on hard courts and is enjoying a career-best ranking. Barty is due to crack the Top 10 after Miami and Kontaveit can move up to No. 14 with another win.

Says Kontaveit: “I feel like my game is heading in the right direction.”

What they’re saying

Simona Halep, who has finished the last two seasons as the WTA year-end World No. 1, was asked during her post-match press conference following her quarterfinal win on Wednesday what it means to regain the No. 1 ranking. She said: “I just found out from my coach that I need one more match to be No. 1 again. I think it’s pretty much in my head, and I’m happy that I’m in this position again. 

“It gives me confidence, because from the two months of the off-season, I didn’t believe I would be so close again so fast. So it’s going to be a big challenge, but I like to play with the pressure. So I hope tomorrow I play my best.”

What they’re tweeting

• Dubai-based tennis journalist Reem Abulleil tweeted this reminder Tuesday evening when Petra Kvitova and Ashleigh Barty met in the women’s singles quarterfinals: “We’re averaging 1 Kvitova-Barty match per month so far in 2019, which is a stat that warms my heart.” 

Kvitova and Barty have faced each other three times this year and five times overall. Barty’s Miami win was her first against Kvitova.

• Speaking of Ashleigh Barty, after she beat Petra Kvitova, she tweeted this compliment to her opponent:

Wednesday’s results

Women’s singles/quarterfinals
No. 5 Karolina Pliskova d. Market Vondrousova, 6-3, 6-4
No. 2 Simona Halep d. No. 18 Wang Qiang, 6-4, 7-5

Women’s doubles/quarterfinals
WC-Victoria Azarenka/Ashleigh Barty d. Daria Jurak/Raluca Olaru, 6-1, 6-3
Elise Mertens/Aryna Sabalenka d. No. 5 Gabriela Dabrowski/Xu Yifan, 6-2, 6-2
No. 6 Sam Stosur/Zhang Shuai d. Monica Niculescu/Abigail Spears, 6-3, 6-7 (4), 10-6

Thursday’s order of play

Women’s singles/semifinals
No. 21. Anett Kontaveit vs. No. 12 Ashleigh Barty, 1 p.m. (Stadium)
No. 5 Karolina Pliskova vs. No. 2 Simona Halep, NB 9 p.m. (Stadium)