MELBOURNE, Australia -- No.1 seed Simona Halep of Romania emerged victorious in a brisk quarterfinal encounter between two Top 10 players on Wednesday, defeating No.6 seed Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, 6-3, 6-2, and notching her first semifinal appearance at the Australian Open.
In a battle between a former World No.1 and the present World No.1, the current resident of the spot was able to overcome an initial 0-3 deficit in the first set, running off nine straight games at one point before winning comfortably in 72 minutes.
"For sure it wasn’t my best start," said Halep, in her on-court, post-match interview. "I just knew that I had to restart, actually, after three games -- just to stop missing that much and to move better, which I did pretty well in the end. Then I just started to open the court, to play my style, and I served well today. Everything went pretty well for me."
Halep expanded upon that in her post-match press conference. "I think it was a great match, the best this tournament," said the top seed. "I started slow a little bit. Then I got used to the rhythm. I got used to everything. I played very well."
Halep and Pliskova had played six matches previously, and Halep had gotten the better of the Czech five of those times, including their most recent prior meeting, a tight three-set semifinal at Roland Garros last year.
But this match was far less competitive, as the Romanian won an impressive 76 percent of points on her first serve, and was not broken after the early hiccup in the first set. Halep nearly matched the power-hitter in winners (20 for Halep, one less than the Czech), and Pliskova, the WTA ace leader last year, had only two aces and could only win 54 percent of points on her first serve.
"I can read [Pliskova's] game a little bit better," said Halep. "But still, every match is difficult. You never know with her because she has crazy good shots sometimes, and also the serve. But, yeah, like I said, I read her serve many times today. I just was very strong on the return. I think that's why I could start to dominate the game. She was a little bit upset because she couldn't take the serve."
In the semifinals, Halep will take on another former World No.1 -- 2016 Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber of Germany. Earlier in the day, the No.21-seeded Kerber cruised past 17th-seeded American Madison Keys, 6-1, 6-2, which guaranteed the German a return to the Top 10 of the WTA rankings.
"For sure, it's going to be a second marathon this tournament," Halep said, regarding Kerber. "But I'm used to that. I know her pretty well. I know she's very strong opponent, very strong player."
Halep's nine-match winning streak, including her title run at the Shenzhen Open two weeks ago, appeared to be in jeopardy, as Pliskova jumped to a 3-0 lead behind her typically solid serving. The top seed, on the other hand, was making too many errors and had a handful of double faults early.
But after staring down a break point and holding for 3-1, the momentum shifted completely to the Romanian, and would remain with her for the rest of the match. Halep hit a number of forehand winners in the next game to break Pliskova and get back on serve, and, suddenly, the Romanian went on a tear.
"I just was hoping to start to feel the rhythm," Halep explained. "Then after I took the first game, I said that I can come back."
A backhand winner down the line from outside the court let Halep break Pliskova again for a 4-3 lead, and after holding serve easily for 5-3, a forehand down-the-line winner in the next game gave Halep triple set point. Pliskova clocked a forehand winner to save one, but double faulted on the next to let Halep wrest a firm advantage from the No.6 seed.
Pliskova bemoaned losing her lead during her press conference. "I think it was huge, the game at 4-0 to go double break up," said the Czech. "It would be, not for sure, but most probably my set, the first one.
"I think she just plays always good against me, so I don't know where is really the problem," Pliskova continued. "I need to change something maybe for next time."
Halep had to save break points in the first game of the second set, but was able to extricate herself from the situation by moving the tall Czech around and forcing her into errors. Pliskova could not figure out how to adjust her game in order to counteract the exquisite defense and acute angles by the Romanian, and dropped serve in the next game to give Halep an early break advantage.
"I think she's just using my speed, that's the problem," said Pliskova. "I try to play fast, but I think she likes this. She doesn't have to give any power, like, into her shots. She just uses my speed. Then in the end, I'm the one who is running. It doesn't make sense," she said with a smile.
Pliskova held for 3-1 to stop the nine-game winning streak that Halep had put together, but the damage had been done. The Czech tried to power her way into extending the match, but her serve was off, and unforced errors were her downfall.
Halep said the run of games "gave me confidence that I can finish the match in that way. But still when you win so many games in a row, it's a bit of danger there. I had to stay very focused. I knew that at 4-1, even if I lost that game, I have to take the next one, which I did. [It] was great."
At 5-2, a forehand miscue from Pliskova gave Halep a break point which doubled as match point, and a final forehand error by the Czech into the net sent Halep into the semifinals.
Despite stating that Halep has a handle on her game, Pliskova does not think the Romanian will go much further. "Every match is different story -- I don't think she's going to win it," said Pliskova. "I think Kerber is better now."
As for Halep, she will feel pleased with her semifinal appearance after surviving an injury scare in her opening match, and multiple match points against her in the third round versus Lauren Davis.
"After that [Davis] match, I said that it was a huge win for me," Halep told the press. "Also for this tournament, also in general, because I could resist those tough moments during the match. Also I could see that my ankle is okay, to run and to play so long. I got a lot of confidence."
"Also I got a little bit of, you know, courage to go forward, it doesn't matter the score," Halep continued. "I think that match was really important for me. Also, it's the beginning of the year, and I have so many months ahead. I'm ready and I feel stronger now mentally."