Simona Halep is on track to become the first Romanian to win a Grand Slam title since her manager Virginia Ruzici at Roland Garros 36 years ago after reaching the quarter-finals on Monday without the loss of a set.
With former Romanian men’s greats Ilie Nastase and Ion Tiriac watching on as well as the aforementioned Ruzici, Halep, the highest-remaining seed in the draw, looked composed throughout her 6-4, 6-3 defeat of dangerous American Sloane Stephens on Philippe Chatrier Court, and will play Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarter-final.
“I’m really happy I’m in quarterfinals for the first time in my life here because I love Paris … I have a lot of confidence in myself. Day by day I play better. Here in the French Open I like the clay and feel very well. Here I don’t want to stop in the quarter-finals. I want to go far, so I have to be ready again,” Halep said.
She is widely tipped to at least reach a maiden Grand Slam final at Roland Garros this year, given the seeds to have fallen in the bottom half of the women’s draw and based on her form coming in, having pushed Maria Sharapova to three sets in the Madrid final. If Halep was to go all the way she would emulate Ruzici’s 1978 breakthrough.
”Yeah she’s my manager so she’s also supporting me,” Halep said of Ruzici. “Maybe one day, in this life, if I’m to win a Grand Slam I’d hope it was here in Paris. Also with Ilie Nastase here [watching], I would be very happy if I could become the third [Grand Slam champion from Romania].”
Stephens, the highest-ranked player yet to have won a title on tour, would have to be aggressive against the fleet-footed Romanian but when she made a wild drop shot attempt, which bounced half a dozen times before it even reached the net at 3-3, it was clear she was feeling the pressure, knowing she had to come up with something special to rattle her rock-solid opponent.
Locked at 4-4, 15th-seeded Stephens won a 24-shot rally, drawing the backhand error from the world No.4 after both players had been dragged out of court. Halep responded with a backhand winner down the line before holding after a lengthy battle for 5-4.
Stephens handed the diminutive Halep two set points when she found the net and Halep would require only one, taking it with a backhand down the line after 47 minutes.
When Stephens’s backhand missed wide by centimetres to hand Halep the break for 3-1, Halep, with her fist raised, could see the finish line. She held to love with a well-placed wrong-footing forehand in behind Stephens for 5-2 and would serve it out two games later when the American lofted one last forehand long after one hour and 18 minutes.
Hard to believe the Romanian arrived at Roland Garros only a year ago ranked 57th in the world.
What a meteoric rise it has already been for the 22-year-old.
Her win makes it back-to-back Grand Slam quarter-finals after she lost to Dominika Cibulkova in the last eight in Melbourne to begin the year and she will meet the winner of former champion Svetlana Kuznetsova or Czech Lucie Safarova for a berth in her first semi-final at a major.
If there’s one person hoping to see Romania’s 36-year wait broken, it’s the 1978 champion herself. Halep's doing her best to get there fast.
In the last match to finish on Day 9, Svetlana Kuznetsova rolled back the years to win through to the sixth Roland Garros quarter-final of her career. The French Open champion of 2009, who turns 29 this month, eased away with the first set against the No.23 seed Lucie Safarova and looked to be on course for a repeat in the second until her opponent levelled for 4-4. But Kuznetsova was too strong and took it 6-3, 6-4 in an hour and 20 minutes.
This match was originally scheduled for Suzanne Lenglen Court but switched to No.1 Court when earlier matches over-ran. In the gathering twilight, the two women battled out the latest episode of their rivalry which stood at 3-3 going into this match. Safarova, 27, was bidding to equal her best Slam result – the quarter-final in Australia 2007 with which she announced herself seven long years ago. The Czech, who defeated many observers’ favourite Ana Ivanovic in round three, fended off one match point but deposited a forehand in the net on the second. Kuznetsova will face Simona Halep in the last eight.