Two Women On A Mission: Halep Hurries Her Way Into Semifinal Clash With Muguruza

MELBOURNE, January 29, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

In just 53 minutes, World No. 3 Simona Halep came, she saw, and, then, conquered her way into the Australian Open semifinals for the second time in three years. The No. 4 seed from Romania defeated an overmatched No. 28 seed Anett Kontaveit of Estonia, 6-1, 6-1, on Rod Laver Arena Wednesday.

Then, unseeded Garbiñe Muguruza from Spain reached her first major semifinal since winning the 2018 French Open – and first Grand Slam semifinal on a hard court – with a solid 7-5, 6-3 win over No. 30 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia that was contested in one hour and 33 minutes.

Halep will face Muguruza on Rod Laver Arena in the second semifinal Thursday while World No. 1 and top seed Ashleigh Barty of Australia and No. 14 seed Sonia Kenin from the United States play in the opening semifinal. Three of the four semifinalists are Grand Slam champions while one is an outsider ready to step into the spotlight. Each is bidding for their first Grand Slam title on a hard court.

This much is certain: there will be a first-time Australian Open champion crowned on Saturday night.

Halep dominant against Kontaveit

Simona Halep dropped just 12 points on her serve and for the fifth straight time during this Melbourne fortnight, she did not drop a set. She was that dominant during her brief time on Rod Laver Arena Wednesday afternoon.

Against Annette Kontaveit, 24, who was making her debut in a Grand Slam quarterfinal while trying to become the first Estonian to reach a major semifinal, Halep aggressively but effectively utilized the entire court and the end result was satisfying: she painted a beautiful picture with her tennis racquet. After Kontaveit held the opening game at love, Halep strung together 11 straight games, winning the first set 6-1 and rolling to a 5-0 advantage in the second set. The end result was never in doubt.

Statistically, Halep won points on her first serve with 78 percent efficiency, hit 12 winners and made just 10 unforced errors. She broke Kontaveit five times in 11 tries, saved the only break point she faced with a forehand winner, and outpointed her opponent 54-34.

“Simona played an incredible match,” Kontaveit said after having some time to reflect on the outcome. “I was trying to do everything. I mean, she was just so strong today. Yeah, couldn’t find a weapon. I was trying to be aggressive, but couldn’t hit through her.”

The former No. 1 Halep is now into her seventh Grand Slam semifinal against unseeded Garbiñe Muguruza, who reached the Australian Open semifinals for the first time. Both Halep and Muguruza have already won the French Open and Wimbledon.

During an on-court interview following her victory, the 28-year-old Halep said: “It’s a pleasure to play in Australia and I’m really happy to play my best tennis and go through to the semifinals.”

Halep has been this far in Melbourne before, in 2018, losing a three-set final to Caroline Wozniacki. Since then, Halep has worked with her team on developing her mental game to complement her physical skills. “I’m feeling much strong than before,” she said.

“I felt great today on court. I feel my game. I feel strong on my legs and I knew how to play against her. I’ve just been focused on every game I played, and I really enjoy playing here in Melbourne.”

Muguruza gaining momentum

In the last quarterfinal of the women’s draw, former No. 1 Garbiñe Muguruza rose to the occasion against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. She hit six aces and 21 winners and broke her Russian opponent five times in seven attempts en route to a confidence-building victory. Pavlyuchenkova committed 26 unforced errors and was outpointed by Muguruza 71-56.

The 26-year-old Muguruza, who rode her way into the quarterfinals with back-to-back victories over Top 10 opponents Elina Svitolina (seeded fifth) and Kiki Bertens (seeded ninth), advanced in one hour and 33 minutes as both players struggled with their serves in the sun.

“It is always special to get deep in a Grand Slam,” Muguruza said during her post-match press conference. “Very excited to be playing tomorrow again. It’s a very long tournament. You have very tough opponents, not being seeded as well. 

“I’m just happy that I’m going through every match.”

The loss dropped Pavlyuchenkova to 0-6 in Grand Slam quarterfinals. She has now played in 49 majors without reaching the final four.

“It’s very disappointing losing in the quarterfinals,” Pavlyuchenkova, 28, said. “I felt like I had all the chances. It’s always tough losing a match anyway. Doesn’t matter if it’s quarterfinals, semifinals, final. I just hate losing.”

With her fifth win in Melbourne during the fortnight, Muguruza has reached the Australian Open semifinals for the first time – and her fifth major semifinal overall. Going up against Simona Halep, Muguruza owns a 3-2 head-to-head advantage over the reigning Wimbledon champion. All three of those victories have come on hard courts.

“She’s a very solid player. She’s played very consistently through all these years,” said Muguruza in assessing Halep. “It’ll be a tough match. That’s the case no matter when you play the Top 5. It’s a semifinal, so of course I’m expecting her to bring her best game.”

Top seeds advance to doubles final

Both of the top two seeded teams have advanced to the women’s doubles final. No. 1 seeds Hsieh Su-wei from Taiwan and Barbora Strycova of the Czech Republic beat No. 4 seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, 6-2, 6-3, while No. 2 seeds Timea Babos of Hungary and Kristina Mladenovic from France advanced over No. 7 seeds Latisha Chan and Chan Hao-Ching, both from Taiwan, 7-5, 6-2. Friday afternoon’s final will match the reigning Wimbledon and French Open doubles champions.

Hall of Famer Navratilova speaks out

Tennis great Martina Navratilova is an 18-time Grand Slam champion and thrice won the Australian Open singles title during her Hall of Fame career. She’s long been an outspoken critic of Margaret Court’s views on gays, lesbians and transgenders. Several years ago, Navratilova suggested that the high-profile show court that is named for the 24-time Grand Slam champion from Australia be renamed.

On Tuesday, following her legends’ doubles match on 1573 Arena court – the fourth largest at Melbourne Park – Navratilova took to the umpire’s chair, and with the help of John McEnroe, a seven-time Grand Slam singles champion and fellow Hall of Famer, unfurled a banner she painted in aboriginal style that said “Evonne Goolagong Arena” to recognize the four-time Australian Open champion, who is an indigenous Australian.

Afterward, Navratilova told BBC Sport that she wanted “to push the conversation forward.”

Tennis Australia said that Navratilova and McEnroe, whom it described as “two high-profile guests,” had breached their protocols in demonstrating and parading the banner. It happened a day after Tennis Australia conducted a ceremony on Monday in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the year that Court won all four Grand Slam titles in the same calendar year. Court is now a Christian pastor.

In a statement regarding Navratilova and McEnroe’s protest, Tennis Australia said: “We embrace diversity, inclusion and the right for people to have a view, as well as their right to voice that view. But the Australian Open has regulations and protocols with respect to how any fan, player or guest can use our facility, the event, and the global stage it provides. This is to ensure the integrity of our event. Two high-profile guests have breached these protocols and we are working through this with them.”

“You don’t want to diminish in any way Margaret Court’s achievements,” Navratilova said, quoted by BBC.com“She was celebrated (Monday) for winning the Grand Slam 50 years ago – absolutely. But when buildings are named after you, or airports, or streets, it’s the body of work, it’s not just one part of your life and then ignore the rest.”

McEnroe, who is working as a TV commentator for multiple broadcast networks, spoke critically of Court on Eurosport Monday. He called her views on religion “offensive and homophobic.”

Navratilova said she asked McEnroe to contribute to her cause because he had also spoken out about renaming the arena. “He’s been very supportive of social change in tennis, so it was perfect.

“I wanted to be respectful, but most of all I just wanted to push the conversation forward again. I have no doubt it’s the right thing to do.”

Appearing on Tennis Live at the Australian Open, broadcast in the U.S., Navratilova explained: “I got in trouble; I am sorry. I said my peace … but I do apologize for breaking protocol.”

What they’re saying

• First-time Grand Slam semifinalist Sofia Kenin, 21, who was one 22 American women to start in the draw (that included Serena Williams and Coco Gauff), on the being the only one remaining: “Yeah, it’s exciting. I’m happy. I’m doing this for myself, I’m trying not to think about being the last American – but of course, it’s an honor, it’s a privilege. I’m happy to be where I am.”

• More Kenin on playing World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty: “I’ve played Ash a few times. I’ve played a lot of big names, but I don’t think I’ve played anyone big in their home crowd. So, it’s going to be a different atmosphere, obviously. But it’s exciting. I’m really looking forward to it.”

• World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty calls Sofia Kenin, her semifinal opponent on Thursday, “an exceptional competitor. … Loves to put herself out there, test herself on the biggest stage. Have played her a number of times now, with some results going both ways. She has a great knack of controlling the court from the center of the court and being that first-strike player. It’s going to be important for me to try and nullify that if I can.”

What they’re tweeting

Christopher Clarey, New York Times tennis columnist: “Garbiñe Muguruza, unseeded at a Slam for the first time in a long time, will be back inside the Top 20 with her run to the semifinals here. Make some time for her duel with Halep: two women on missions.”

By the numbers

• Day 10 attendance at the Australian Open Wednesday reached 46,919. The day session drew 23,640 fans to see Simona Halep and Garbiñe Muguruza reach the women’s singles semifinals and Alexander Zverev’s quarterfinal victory over Stan Wawrinka. The night session nearly equaled the day session with 23,279 spectators filing into Melbourne Park, many of them to witness the men’s quarterfinal clash between top seed Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem.

• Top-seed Ashleigh Barty is trying to end a drought for the Australian woman. The last Australian woman to win the singles championship in Melbourne was Chris O’Neil in 1978.

• Simona Halep is the only women’s semifinalists to not lose a set.

• The career head-to-heads for the women’s semifinal matchups: Ashleigh Barty leads Sofia Kenin 4-1 and Garbiñe Muguruza leads Simona Halep 3-2.