French Open 2018

French Open 2018: Simona Halep and Garbine Muguruza to contest No1 in pursuit of Major glory

Simona Halep will take on Garbine Muguruza in the semi-finals of the French Open in Paris

Four No1 players, three of them Major champions, two of them former French Open champions: Not a bad line-up for the two quarter-final matches scheduled for Roland Garros on a Parisian afternoon.

And if the two contests between Simona Halep and Angelique Kerber, Garbine Muguruza and Maria Sharapova did not offer enough star power, there was a possible added bonus for two of them. Current No1 Halep and former No1 Muguruza were playing to claim the top spot after the conclusion of the French Open. But it was still possible for world No2 Caroline Wozniacki to steal their thunder, despite losing in the fourth round.

Both women had an almighty battle on their hands. Halep had to reach the semi-finals here to keep her bid to retain the top ranking alive, but in Kerber, current No12 and a two-time Major champion, she faced one of her most formidable adversaries. She led 5-4, but trailed 4-2 in their last six matches. And if their semi-final at this year’s Australian Open was anything to go by, their battle in Paris would be a humdinger.

In Melbourne, Halep came out the victor, 9-7, in the deciding set, after almost two and a half hours. And she had certainly stacked up the wins and form since then. The final in Melbourne—which she lost to Wozniacki—was followed by semis in Indian Wells and Doha, and the final in Rome, which she lost for the second straight year to Elina Svitolina.

Roland Garros also marked her most successful Major, twice runner-up—and there was the rub. She had final points to defend from last year, so had at least to beat Kerber to hold off the Wozniacki challenge.

And if Muguruza also made the semis, Halep would have to beat her to fend off the Spaniard’s challenge for No1. First, though, the 2016 French champion Muguruza had to try and score her first victory over Sharapova, herself a two-time champion at Roland Garros.

Indeed prior to 2016, when she missed the tournament following a doping ban, Sharapova put together a run of semis, champion, runner-up and champion, before losing in the fourth round in 2015. But her last match against Muguruza dated back to 2014, when the Spaniard was still just 20 years old, and since then, Muguruza had won the Premier Mandatory in Beijing, the French Open, Wimbledon and Cincinnati, plus made another run to the Wimbledon final.

Add into the equation their only contest on Roland Garros’s clay, during which Muguruza served for the match at 5-4 in the second set, and their first contest in almost four years promised much.

It developed into a baseline contest of power hitting, high octane and high volume. It looked early on as though Sharapova was not timing her serve well, three double faults in the first game, one to concede the break. Muguruza capitalised with a hold, 2-0, and then turned on the pressure in the third game, too.

Sharapova seemed to take longer to prepare for her serve, missed her toss several times, faced six deuces, and finally gave up another break, 0-3. Another hold from the Spaniard, and the one-way traffic continued, 4-0, and while Kerber led Halep by the same score across the site on Suzanne Lenglen, the two matches would then follow very different courses.

Sharapova did stem the tide with a love hold, and did so again with a backhand winner, but Muguruza held firm for the set, 6-2, after 42 minutes.

Meanwhile, Halep had brought her aggressive game to the table, got one break back, and then broke again as Kerber served for the set, 5-5. Another break apiece, and it went to a tie-break, where Kerber reasserted herself to sweep game and set, 7-6(2) with an hour played.

Back on Chatrier, and Muguruza looked cool, calm and collected against a tense Sharapova. She broke immediately, but this time Sharapova took advantage of her first break chance of the match to level, 1-1. It would be her last game, as the errors flowed—six doubles faults contributed to 27 in total, compared with 15 from the Spaniard. Two more breaks, and a final netted backhand from Sharapova, and the rout was complete, 6-1, in just 70 minutes.

Now Muguruza could sit back and watch another marathon encounter play out between Halep and Kerber. In the second set, the Romanian got the jump, breaking and holding for 2-0. Playing increasingly aggressively, as has been her aim this season, she kept her lead, and broke again for the set, 6-3, after an hour and 41 minutes.

The final set began with a break apiece, and then a medical time out for Kerber to treat blisters. But Halep had a real determination about her, roaring herself on with every point. She would not be denied, for all Kerber’s resistance, and broke again for set and match, 6-2, another two and a quarter hour battle of wills between two of the fittest women on tour.

Asked before the match about the significance of keeping the No1 ranking, Halep was adamant: “Zero… now my goals are different.”

She meant the winning of a Major, the crowning title of any player’s career. At least this year, she was not playing for both accolades in the final: No1 would be determined in the semi-final against Muguruza.

The Spaniard took the same view:

“Before, I gave it a lot of importance, that’s why you’re fighting every week, and I got there. And now it’s just good to be able to play all the time for that.”

She leads Halep 4-1 in previous matches, though the Romanian won their only one on clay. In truth, though, it could be another bitter pill to swallow for Halep. The Spaniard has looked supremely comfortable, calm and clear-sighted through the tournament: former champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in her opener, another Major champion, Sam Stosur, and now Sharapova.

Muguruza headed what looked like the killer quarter more than week ago: she has, thus far, been the assassin.

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