DUBAI, UAE - No.3 seed Simona Halep continued her serene progress through the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships draw, defeating Lesia Tsurenko for the second time in as many weeks 6-3, 7-5 to make the quarterfinals.
"I feel close to my highest level," Halep declared afterwards. "My mindset now is just to finish the points as quick as possible. I'm trying to be more aggressive... I'm more relaxed. I don't put pressure on myself. Also I have no expectations. When I feel that, I play better."
The Romanian had beaten Tsurenko 6-2, 6-3 in the second round of the Qatar Total Open last week - her sixth win in six meetings, over the course of which Halep has conceded just one set. Today, the Brisbane runner-up was able to improve that tally of games by three - but, despite serving for the second set at 5-4, was unable to add that positive to the head-to-head.
As might be expected in a match between two of the tour's best movers and counterpunchers, the first set was defined by the return rather than the serve: though both players opened with a straightforward hold, six of the remaining seven games would be breaks of serve.
Choosing to trade with Halep from the baseline on the majority of points, Tsurenko would occasionally be rewarded in longer rallies as the Roland Garros champion's forehand proved a touch mistake-prone - but more often than not, it was the Ukrainian who would find herself either out-manoeuvred or simply ground down, lapsing into error first. Over the course of the match, both players' winner tally would be similar - 13 for Halep and 12 for Tsurenko - but the latter was unable to keep her mistakes to a similar number, committing 28 unforced errors to Halep's 17.
Sensing the need to switch her usual patterns up, Tsurenko found some benefit in coming to the net - though this, too, found her simply playing into Halep's hands somewhat as the former World No.1 rocketed forwards to retrieve the initial volley, then nail the pass. One such point sealed what would prove to be the set's crucial hold in the sixth game for 4-2.
Each player would drop serve on a double fault in the next two games, but Halep hit out on a forehand down the line to bring up a second set point in the ninth - taken after another extended rally in which Tsurenko's forehand was the first to go awry.
The Halep forehand was still not at its best, and four errors from that wing put the 27-year-old down a break immediately in the second set - but three games later, Tsurenko would repay the favor with three backhand errors to lose her advantage.
With both players improving their first serve percentage, breaks were not quite as commonplace as in the first set - and it was Tsurenko, sticking it out through some key drawn-out rallies, who struck at 4-4, hammering a forehand return to give herself a chance to serve for the set.
However, Halep had other ideas. Having been unable to stamp her authority on Tsurenko for any extended length of time, last week's Doha finalist flicked the switch to avoid the danger of a deciding set. With Tsurenko leading 15-0, Halep conjured up a remarkable wrongfooting dropshot to finish off another gruelling point - and from there, sped through the final 12 points of the match.
"It was because I played too much in the middle," assessed Halep of her second-set deficits. "So I started to use less pace, less power, and opened the court more. She struggled in those directions."
In the home stretch, Halep would be relentlessly accurate - particularly on her hitherto troublesome forehand - as Tsurenko collapsed into frustrated error as her chance was snatched away from her. A wild forehand from the 29-year-old sailed over the baseline as Halep sealed a quarterfinal berth against either No.8 seed Aryna Sabalenka or Belinda Bencic.