No.5 seed Elina Svitolina became the first player to reach the 2021 US Open quarterfinals with a 6-3, 6-3 defeat of No.12 seed Simona Halep in one hour and 16 minutes.
It was the 10th edition of a rivalry dating back to 2013. Svitolina extended her overall head-to-head lead to 6-4, including 2-1 on outdoor hard courts. But it was the first time she had beaten two-time major champion Halep on the Grand Slam stage, having lost at both Roland Garros 2017 and Wimbledon 2019.
Svitolina, who collected her 16th career title in Chicago last week, extends her winning streak to nine, and 11 consecutive sets. Her season record is now 37-16, highlighted by an Olympic bronze medal run in Tokyo in July.
In a clash of former US Open semifinalists - the Ukrainian made the last four in her most recent appearance in 2019, while Halep reached that stage back in 2015 - it was Svitolina who booked her place in an eighth career major quarterfinal. Halep, playing the third tournament after being sidelined for three months due to a left calf tear, can nonetheless take positives from a week in which she scored quality wins over Montreal champion Camila Giorgi and No.19 seed Elena Rybakina.
Scoreboard management: Each set followed a similar pattern. Closely contested opening games saw Halep edge into the lead with her best tennis of the day. In the first, she won a 33-shot rally en route to a gritty opening hold before nailing a backhand winner to go up a break at 2-1. In the second, a series of spectacular passing shots overturned Svitolina's break lead and put the Romanian 3-2 up.
Each time, Svitolina yanked the momentum firmly back her way with an authoritative service hold before proving both more aggressive and more consistent at the end of each set.
Stat corner: Both players finished with a positive ratio of winners (Svitolina had 16 to Halep's 24) to unforced errors (Svitolina committed 14 and Halep 21). But despite Svitolina's reputation being based around her baseline hustle, the 26-year-old's most crucial weapon might be her serve.
Svitolina's victories are often correlated with a high first serve percentage, and here she landed 66% of her first deliveries and won 71% of those points. Many of those were relatively cheap: though she only struck one ace in the first set, she tallied 10 service winners in total, allowing her to rattle through several key holds.
The same applied in the second set. Having extricated herself from the tightest passage of play, Svitolina hammered two service winners and a fifth ace of the day to move up 5-3.
Game of the match: The seventh game of the second set saw two of the past decade's top players go toe-to-toe - and it was riveting. For Svitolina, it was one of the boldest games the World No.5 has ever played at such a crucial moment of such a big match. She has previously allowed herself to fall back on her defensive skills in moments like this, but visibly - and audibly - upped her intensity and aggression levels.
Halep responded in kind. Twice Svitolina powered her way to break point, and twice Halep fended her off. But two brave forehands from Svitolina forced a third, and this time Halep netted a backhand to concede the break.
Svitolina's commitment to staying aggressive was also evident in the way she continued to make her way to net despite being initially outdone by Halep's passing shots. In the final game, a drive volley winner set up a third match point, converted as Halep netted another backhand.
Svitolina on the win: "I think in the first set the key game was coming back from 15-40 at 3-All. It was really important to take one point at a time and fight to come back. I think it was really strong performance from me on the important moments, even when Simona came back in the second set to break me again. It was extremely tough, but I think I was mentally strong, didn't let that break me. Really helped me to close this match in two sets.
"Right now I'm feeling good. I think I'm playing really aggressive right now. I think the most aggressive I've ever been, making lots of winners, serving really good. I want to keep this going, feeling that I'm in a good mind."
What's next for Svitolina: Another old rival in the form of No.16 seed Angelique Kerber, who overturned a four-match losing streak against Svitolina to beat her 7-5, 2-6, 6-4 in Cincinnati two weeks ago - or a new young face, 18-year-old Leylah Fernandez, whom Svitolina defeated in their only previous meeting at Monterrey 2020.