WIMBLEDON, England - For the first time in a long time, No.7 Simona Halep and No.8 Elina Svitolina arrived at a major tournament without much fanfare. Svitolina was still searching for her form after a knee injury derailed her clay season, failing to post back-to-back wins since making the Indian Wells semifinals in March. A semifinalist here in 2014 and quarterfinalist in two of the last three years, Halep came into Wimbledon after a solid but disappointing title defense at Roland Garros, where she lost in two quick sets to 17-year-old Amanda Anisimova in the quarterfinals.
"I saw how it is to lose after you win a title. Nobody died," Simona Halep said after her quarterfinal win over Zhang Shuai.
"I just came here relaxed. I came here motivated to see how good I can be on grass. I'm happy on court. I think this helps me a lot."
Happy and healthy, Halep marched through the field dropping just one set, though her run has not been without adversity. In her opening match against Aliaksandra Sasnovich, she was down 2-5 in the second set before reeling off five consecutive games to win in straight sets. Against her friend and compatriot Mihaela Buzarnescu in the second round, she bounced back to win in three sets.
Then, against an in-form Victoria Azarenka, Halep never panicked after falling behind a quick 1-3, reeling in Azarenka to win 11 of the next 12 games. She handled the unknown perfectly in the Round of 16, ending 15-year-old Coco Gauff's incredible run, and then snapped her two-match losing streak to Zhang Shuai in the quarterfinals. There, down 1-4, Halep steeled herself to save four break points and turn the match around, winning 7-6(4), 6-1.
2019 was supposed to be "a chill year" for Halep, as she's repeatedly reiterated her desire to ease the pressure she lived under for four years as she chased her first major title and the World No.1 ranking. The initial interpretation was that Halep was easing up - she joked in Paris that yes, she might be too happy to win these days - but it's not that Halep has taken her foot off the gas pedal. She's just trying to enjoy the ride.
"When I said is a chill year, I didn't mean that," Halep said. "My English is not that great when I want to translate something from Romanian.
"I'm still working hard. I'm motivated. I want to win every match I play.
"But I want to be chill as a person more than last year. I don't want to stress myself that much about the result. Also the nerves should be less because I did everything I wanted. So now everything, it comes as a bonus.
"My work ethic is like very focused on what I have to do. Every day I respect the schedule. I don't take days off anymore. I'm just trying to get better as much as possible.
"So I am positive and I am ready to fight for every match I play."
Halep returns to the semifinal stage of a major for the first time since winning Roland Garros last year and the first time at Wimbledon since 2014. She is a win away from returning to the Top 5 and making her fifth major final. The key to her successful fortnight has been her grit and her return game. Heading into the tournament, Halep was winning 41.8% of her return games this season, a noticeable dip from her tour-leading mark of 49.6% in 2018.
Here at Wimbledon, she is the only member of the Final Four to break serve over 50% of the time, posting a 51% mark so far. She also leads the semifinalists in Return Points against Second Serve, winning 61% of the points. And on her typically attackable second serve, Halep leads the semifinalists in second serve points won, winning 55% through five matches.
It seems that Simona Halep has finally figured out the grass.
"I have a lot of experience now," Halep said. "I'm more confident. I love grass. It's the first time when I say that," she said with a laugh.
"I started to feel more comfortable on the court. I didn't slide at all this tournament. Hope I will be the same in the next match. It's a little bit dangerous when you play on grass because the feet are not really stable as you are on hard court or clay court. That's why I prefer those surfaces.
"But now I started to feel it, to have it in my hands, to have it in my legs, and also in my mind, which is very important. I could do many things this tournament already to make the court work for me, like to play a little bit wider, then the ball slides a little bit because it's a grass court.
"I try just to adjust myself, my body, to this court. I feel more confident now. Every time the ball comes to me, I feel like I know what to do with it, which is important."
In truth, Halep's struggles on grass had been exaggerated. Though admittedly less comfortable on the turf, Halep won a grass title in s'Hertogenbosch in 2013 and consistently posted quarterfinal appearances at her grass events. In the last three years, Halep had been upended by great grass players, losing to Hsieh Su-Wei (Halep had match points), Johanna Konta (6-4 in the third), and Angelique Kerber.
When it comes to experience, Halep has the edge over Svitolina, who will be playing her first major semifinal and first tour-level grass semifinal of her career. This is unchartered territory for the World No.8, who finally got over her quarterfinal hurdle at the Slams with her win over Karolina Muchova on Tuesday.
"Really when I go into Wimbledon, I don't have any expectations," Svitolina said. "It's very - not different - but tougher for me to play here before. So I didn't really play well here before, so I had no expectations going into this tournament."
Keeping expectations low and flying under the radar seems to suit Svitolina well. The circumstances were similar last fall when she went on to win the WTA Finals in Singapore. Svitolina went into Singapore having not posted a Top 50 win since Montreal and stormed her way to the biggest title of her career.
"Before, like going into Roland Garros a couple of times, I had lots of expectations, lots of pressure, like different one," Svitolina said. "Here I just had probably the pressure from myself. I handle it pretty good.
"It's just about trying to find my game, try to enjoy. Don't think too much about what can happen."
Where Svitolina has been dangerous over the fortnight is in her pure fight and physicality. Both Svitolina and Halep have played 11 sets through five matches. Svitolina has had to run 11,400 meters over that span, while Halep has clocked in 9,714 meters, a difference of over 1,680 meters.
Svitolina has worn down her opponents with her indefatigable baseline work. Margarita Gasparyan was forced to retire due to cramping in the second set of their second-round match. In the Round of 16, Svitolina bested Petra Martic in a 65-minute first set that saw the Croatian appear to cramp as well. Against Muchova, who needed over three hours to defeat No.3 Karolina Pliskova 24 hours earlier, Svitolina worked to prolong the points and capitalize on the 22-year-old's fatigue. If Svitolina allows herself to think ahead, she knows that she holds the slight edge on Halep. Svitolina has won four of their seven meetings. Halep has won their only meeting of the season, a 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 win in the Doha semifinals in February. That win snapped Halep's three-match losing streak to the Ukrainian, though Halep has won their only prior meeting at a Slam, a 3-6, 7-6(6), 6-0 win in the 2017 French Open quarterfinals.
On Thursday they will meet for the first time on grass.