Halep advances on famous double with final run
Simona Halep is on the verge of becoming the world No.1 and the French Open champion after defeating Karolina Pliskova in the semi-final on Philippe-Chatrier Court.
Simona Halep moved one match away from realising her dual dream of becoming a Grand Slam champion and the world No.1 when she defeated Karolina Pliskova in the semi-final with another demonstration of brilliance, rare athleticism and unbreakable resolve on Friday.
Over three sets in a slow burner of a match that turned into a contest of the highest quality, the little Romanian just would not be denied as she recovered from Pliskova’s roaring second set fightback, handled the Czech’s raw power and eventually prevailed 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.
Halep’s two-hour victory ended Pliskova’s own hopes of taking over from Angelique Kerber as the world No.1 - victory here would have earned the Czech the honour - but if the 25-year-old Romanian can now defeat Latvia’s young Jelena Ostapenko in Saturday’s final, she will have made it to the very top of the game.
And on this form, it would take a brave soul to back against her. It’s always unfair to read too much into body language, especially because Pliskova has an icy demeanour out there that conceals her fire, but Halep looked like a woman possessed, filled with the belief that she could not be denied.
"I came through a tough match yesterday, but I just care about today"
It all came just a day after she made one of tennis’s great escapes after coming back from a set and 5-1 down, and later saving a match point, against Elina Svitolina. If she had been worn down by that gruelling encounter, she offered no evidence of it.
Over two hours, she demonstrated tremendous will throughout, showing marvellous defence when trying to chase down Pliskova’s low, flat forehand tracers and often returning just about the biggest serve in the game with interest.
Halep, who may very well be the best woman player never to have won a Grand Slam, having lost here in the 2014 final, may now not have to wait very long to remove that tag.
Ostapenko will be a formidable obstacle but there is something about the No.3 seed at the moment that makes you think that not just terrific form but a whiff of destiny is lying behind her push for glory.
The stars have aligned for her. Only a couple of months ago, her coach Darren Cahill walked out, believing she needed to show more fight but he returned, wooed by her improved on-court resilience, and was here to see another splendid example of her grace under pressure.
For, remember, it was only a couple of days before the tournament that Halep felt she would be 50-50 to compete because of her ankle injury. Yet here, she was again to be found sprinting at full stretch around the court as if her life depended on it.
It’s easy to feel some sympathy for the No.2 seed Pliskova, though. Her game, of such easy, scintillating power, looked as if it might carry her to her landmark victory as she changed her game after a sluggish start and hammered 13 winners in a second set that she dominated. Ultimately, though, she was betrayed not just by Halep’s remarkable resilience and athleticism but by her own unforced errors, 55 of them officially.
Yet were they really all unforced? How many were down to Halep, time and again, staying in the hunt in points that she had no right to win? Pliskova was unquestionably taken aback by her opponent's spirit as well as skill.
"It is an amazing feeling, I'm so happy. I came through a tough match yesterday, but I just care about today. Karolina is a good player and made it tough,” Halep told the crowd afterwards.
"It is nice to be in the final again, I hope I can play better and win it. I'm playing a young player, it is a big challenge and it will be great to play here on Chatrier again.”
Such a splendid match, though, had begun in a strangely anti-climactic atmosphere following the opener between Ostapenko and Timea Bacsinszky with the stadium taking an age to even remotely fill up and both players sparring a bit tentatively in the evening breeze.
Halep was the one to seize the initiative after the Czech had offered up two double faults to allow her to break for 2-1. Rousing the crowd, Halep then saved two break points in the next game, the second with a searing forehand winner at the end of the first really stirring rally of the match.
Pliskova just could not seem to get out of first gear as Halep’s bounce and aggression made her seem curiously passive. The unforced errors did not help either, 24 all told in the first stanza, including three wayward forehands as Halep served for the set.
Saving three set points with the help of a couple of forehand tracers helped steel Pliskova to the job, though. Her serve, one of the great weapons in the women’s game, began ticking over more slickly while she took more risks on the Halep serve, coming into batter a host of sweet returns to level affairs after 78 minutes.
Halep was not about to be blown away by a blizzard of bullets, though, and leading 2-1, she converted a fantastic break point with the two shots of the match, an almost impossible piece of retrieving of a Pliskova forehand at full stretch followed by a glorious, running cross-court forehand that had the crowd roaring in appreciation.
Pliskova never stopped fighting herself, breaking back for 3-4 with a great forehand winner of her own yet Halep was undaunted, broke again and eventually was able to pump her arms to the skies after a Pliskova forehand floated long.