French Open 2018

French Open 2018: Simona Halep and Daria Kasatkina power to quarter-finals, as battle for No1 continues

Simona Halep is through to the quarter-finals of the French Open in Paris after beating Elise Mertens in straight sets

Amid the brouhaha over the highly-anticipated renewal of the Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova rivalry, it would have been easy to let another big story slip from the headlines: The No1 ranking.

As has been the case through much of the last year, Roland Garros began with all kinds of possibilities for the top spot. Indeed, when the draw was made, no fewer than six women had lined up their chances. Admittedly Elina Svitolina, Karolina Pliskova and Caroline Garcia were outside bets, and once the former two had failed to reach the fourth round, they were out of contention.

Garcia, the popular home favourite, also entered a tough fourth-round match against former No1 Angelique Kerber, but already she knew that she could not catch Caroline Wozniacki, even if she became the first French Roland Garros champion since 2000. Nevertheless, she remained on course for a career-high placing of at least No6 if she beat Kerber.

So the remaining names in the frame were Wozniacki, Garbine Muguruza and Simona Halep.

Halep may have entered the tournament as No1 in both the main WTA rankings and the Race to Singapore, but her long-standing fight to reach and then stay at the top of women’s tennis would likely continue all the way to the finish line. Should she achieve the crowning ambition of her professional life, her first Major title, she would also keep hold of the No1 ranking

But since Halep rose to the top last October, she had already been overtaken by Wozniacki once—courtesy of the Dane’s first Major, in Australia, after her own long pursuit of one of the ‘big ones’. Wozniacki had previously reached two finals and four further semi-finals, and spent more than 12 months at No1 seven years ago: It took her a long time to finally lift that Major trophy.

Now Halep’s biggest threat came from Wozniacki again, for the popular Romanian had runner-up points to defend after coming desperately close to fulfilling her dream here last year. Meanwhile, the Dane would take a big step towards reclaiming the No1 ranking if she replicated her quarter-final run of last year.

For Muguruza, her chances also came down to Wozniacki. The Spaniard, a former French champion and current Wimbledon champion, briefly rose to No1 last September, and to keep alive her hopes of doing so in a week’s time, she had to reach the final—and hope that Wozniacki did not.

So the progress of Wozniacki was key in this storyline, and it took an unexpected twist in the fourth round. She faced the talented world No14, Daria Kasatkina, a former Roland Garros junior champion. The 21-year old was the youngest remaining woman in the draw, and Wozniacki was among the five top-two players that the Russian had beaten—this year in both Indian Wells and St Petersburg.

And she took the match to Wozniacki again in an evening match where the conditions would play their own part in proceedings. With Kasatkina leading, 7-6 (5), 3-3, their match was halted for bad light.

The usually solid game of Wozniacki was off from the start, as she made more errors than usual, and the two women traded breaks in the early stages. But the flair and energy of Kasatkina took her to a tie-break showdown, and Wozniacki was again let down by her forehand to concede her first set of the week.

But at 3-3 in the second set, the match was halted, and they would not return until Halep had blasted her way to the quarters in extraordinary fashion.

Halep’s opponent, Elise Mertens, was aiming to reach her first quarter-final here in the knowledge that her only other meeting with the Romanian, in Madrid last month, had been a rout, 6-0, 6-3, though the Belgian had been on a 13-match winning streak at the time following titles in Lugano and Rabat.

However, this would be more of the same from Halep. She served for the match with less than an hour on the clock, 6-2, 5-0, only for Mertens to produce some blasting strikes from the baseline to break for the first time, 5-1. For the No16 seed, however, it was just a brief delay: Mertens double faulted on break point and Halep still advanced in under an hour, 6-1.

Halep’s form, building from her runner-up run in Rome, has looked impressive as she upped her aggression, she admitted afterwards, to finish points quickly and stay strong on the court.

But all she could do now was watch as Wozniacki and Kasatkina engaged for the next chapter in the battle for No1. And it would be a very short chapter, as the young Russian played and beat Wozniacki at her own game through a series of metronomic rallies, balls striking onto the lines, and defending with patience and maturity.

Twice Kasatkina slotted a forehand winner past the Dane to earn break point in the eighth game, and at the third bite of the cherry, outplayed Wozniacki again, 5-3. And she made no mistakes in serving out the win, to 15, 6-3, in two hours.

She next plays No10 seed Sloane Stephens for a third time, with one win apiece in what will be a first quarter-final for both at Roland Garros.

And while the door has not entirely closed on Wozniacki’s chance of No1, one more win by Halep will slam it shut—for now. Instead, Halep’s attention will turn to Muguruza. For these two could find themselves battling not just for the title come Saturday but for the No1 ranking, too—exactly as Halep did against Jelena Ostapenko here last year.

There, she failed on both counts, but has since managed to ascend to the top. Now, therefore, her goal is simpler.

“In this moment, [the No1 ranking] is zero. It was [a distraction] before, because I really wanted to get there, but now my goals are different.”

Now her goal is that Major title—and she is rapidly becoming many fans’ favourite to win her pot of gold.

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