Simona Halep, eyeing her first two potential matches at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, was keenly aware that history was not her friend.
She had lost two previous outings to both Marketa Vondrousova and Ekaterina Alexandrova, but there was a bounce in her step because she was back on familiar footing.
After taking down Vondrousova in her first match in straight sets, she did the same to Alexandrova on Friday, 6-1, 6-4.
“Yeah, the start is really good,” Halep said afterward. “Always I am confident when I start the clay court season, but this time was much better than I thought because I had the long break. Those matches are really important for my mental. I will take a big plus from these two days.”
The WTA’s red clay season began this week in Stuttgart and Istanbul. It ends in mid-June at Roland Garros, and the Federation Francaise de Tennis would have to be thrilled with the semifinals that await us Saturday at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix:
- World No.1 Ashleigh Barty versus World No.5 Elina Svitolina (9:30 ET)
- World No.3 Simona Halep versus World No.7 Aryna Sabalenka (12:30 ET).
Halep (2018) and Barty (2019) are both French Open champions, and the other two proven competitors would desperately like to one day join them as major winners. Four of Svitolina’s 15 career titles have come on clay; Sabalenka has nine career titles but none of them have come on clay.
Savor these matchups:
No.1 seed Ashleigh Barty vs. No.4 seed Elina Svitolina
Back in Australia, Barty had already turned 25. But on Friday in Stuttgart, technically, she was still on the cusp of her birthday.
Behind through most of their quarterfinal match, Barty came back to beat No.6 seed Karolina Pliskova 2-6, 6-1, 7-5.
Her family watched right along in Ipswich, Queensland, and afterward called to congratulate her. In Germany, anyway, Barty will be marking her birthday with an eighth career match against Svitolina.
“It’s exciting to be playing on my birthday,” Barty said. “I mean, it’s what I love to do. Playing against another tough opponent, there’s no better challenge and there’s no better way for me to celebrate.”
Recent history suggests she might be celebrating again after Saturday’s semifinal. The comeback against Pliskova was her eighth consecutive win against a top 10 opponent. Four of those have come this year, including a win 23 days ago in Miami – over Svitolina.
After dropping the first five meetings to Svitolina, Barty is 2-0 since rising to the World No.1 ranking. It was 6-3, 6-3 in the Miami semifinal and 6-4, 6-3 in the championship match of the 2019 WTA Finals.
“It forces you to bring your best to try and compete every single time you’re on the court,” Barty explained to reporters. “With a lot of the girls in the Top 10, we’ve had plenty of matches, plenty of matches gone either way. Each time I love that challenge of testing myself against the best.”
Svitolina, meanwhile, was down a set and 2-5, then improbably won 11 of the last 13 games to defeat No. 7 seed Petra Kvitova 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-2. Svitolina saved two match points on her way to a third consecutive win over the two-time Grand Slam champion, who had impressive victories over Australian Open finalist Jennifer Brady and Maria Sakkari earlier in the week.
“To be fair, I was already thinking that I’m not going to win this match,” Svitolina admitted afterward. “I was thinking already I was going to go home. Maybe tonight.
“I’m not going to lie, there are some negative thoughts.”
She’ll have to ward off a few more, specifically that match in Miami.
“It’s not getting any easier,” Svitolina said. “It’s a little bit different conditions to what it is now, but it’s going to be an interesting match. I’m looking forward to that one.
“I will sit down with my coach [Andrew Bettles] to analyze what I did wrong and try to bring something different.”
A win over Barty would level her career mark against World No.1 players at 6-all.
Barty, for her part, is trying to become the first reigning World No.1 to win in Stuttgart since Justine Henin in 2007.
After getting past Pliskova, Barty was asked if the aura of being World No.1 was a factor.
"No, not at all,” she said, stifling a laugh. “I think it’s experience that helps. Regardless of what number is next to my name, over the last two, three, four years I’ve been able to build more experience in big matches against extremely tough opponents.
“Any time you get toward the pointy end of a tournament you expect to be playing extremely tough matches. People are obviously well acclimatized, know the conditions quite well and are playing good tennis.”
No.2 seed Simona Halep vs. No.5 seed Aryna Sabalenka
Imagine you are Aryna Sabalenka and you’ve just come off a nice 7-5, 4-6, 6-1 win over Anett Kontaveit. And then you look at the semifinal grid.
You’re ranked No.7 in the world – and you’re the lowest-ranked player left among the final four.
It wasn’t easy. Kontaveit had lost all three previous matches to Sabalenka, but she loves the clay and Stuttgart, in particular. In fact, Kontaveit was 11-3 at Stuttgart coming in and was trying to beat her second Top 10 player of the week.
After converting her fourth set point, Kontaveit forced the match to its maximum. Sabalenka broke in the fourth game and coasted the rest of the way. In the end, Sabalenka saved 15 of 18 break points against her.
“She fought for every point and played really, really well,” Sabalenka said in her on-court interview. “I was under pressure every second on the court and I was just trying to handle this pressure.
“I dropped my level in the beginning and it was tough to come back.”
A quick break off the court and some cold water, brought her game back.
“Sometimes you just need to change the picture.” Sabalenka said. “I kind of tried to cool down myself, and I think I did it pretty well. The cold water helped me to wake up a little bit.
“This was kind a recharge and I think it was really … I mean I’m talking too much right now.”
That’s how excited she was to win.
Halep won both meetings with Sabalenka in 2018, but they have split the last two. Sabalenka won in the 2020 Adelaide quarterfinals in straight sets. Halep won a month later in Dubai in three sets.
“I have played Sabalenka many times,” Halep said, “and I know what to expect, actually. She’s hitting very strong, she’s very powerful. So I have just to focus on my game and try to push her back and be aggressive if I can.”
This is Halep’s first semifinal since winning the title in Rome last year. Stuttgart remains the one major European clay tournament that has eluded her. Halep has matched her best result here, achieved in 2015 and 2017.
She said she came in more relaxed than usual after nearly a one-month break following a shoulder injury that first surfaced at the Australian Open.
Meanwhile, Sabalenka said that she is “looking forward to this match.”
“She’s a great player," Sabalenka added. "I will do everything I can tomorrow.” At the time, it was just minutes before midnight.
Sabalenka said she would stretch, don compression boots and take a hot and cold shower.
“I will prepare myself as good as I can for tomorrow’s match,” she said. “I have to work for every point, be there from the beginning to the end. Do my best.”