MADRID, Spain -- Two-time Mutua Madrid Open champion Simona Halep of Romania continued her fantastic form in the Spanish capital this week, moving past No.9 seed Ashleigh Barty of Australia, 7-5, 7-5, to reach the semifinals of the clay-court event on Thursday.
No.3 seed Halep, who hoisted the trophy in Madrid in 2016 and 2017, was coming off a blistering double-bagel win over Viktoria Kuzmova in the third round on Wednesday. Despite being pushed harder by her fellow Top 10 player in their quarterfinal clash, Halep was still able to oust Barty in straight sets after one hour and 31 minutes of play.
"For me, it's a huge victory," Halep exclaimed to the press, after her win. "It's a huge match that I played today. It means a lot that I could win this match."
As it happened: Halep battles past Barty into Madrid semis
"It was very difficult and every point was important," Halep continued. "I tried to stay calm during the points because sometimes I force and I miss, but with [Barty] you have to keep the ball on court and try to mix also like she does."
Halep, the reigning French Open champion, put 87 percent of first serves into play and ended up with a 75 percent success rate of winning points in those instances. Barty had 22 winners to Halep's 15, but the Australian was also undone by 37 unforced errors, compared to 21 from the racquet of the World No.3.
Former World No.1 Halep will now meet Belinda Bencic in the final four, due to Bencic's comeback upset of current World No.1 Naomi Osaka. Bencic has won two of their three meetings, including a quarterfinal victory in Dubai earlier this year. This will be their first clash on clay.
"I lost against [Belinda in Dubai], but I was leading the match so it's very open, and on clay, it is going to be different," said Halep. "We never played, I think, on clay court, so I feel confident here. I like clay, so I believe I have the chance to win, but also it's going to be a tough challenge, so we will see tomorrow."
A tense opening set started with Halep blasting her way into Barty’s service games with regularity. Barty needed to fend off two break points in the first game, and had to grind through a multiple-deuce tussle to hold for 2-1. Finally, Halep broke for a 3-2 lead, using incredible depth on her service returns to attain the early lead.
However, as the set progressed, Barty reclaimed her extravagant serving prowess, with two consecutive love holds to maintain touching distance through 5-4. The Australian went for broke in that game, and her aggressive play, particularly with her forehand, was rewarded when she broke Halep to reach parity at 5-5.
But the Romanian stayed calm and went back to work, drawing errors from Barty in the subsequent game to reach double break point, then smacking an error-forcing backhand to regain the break and lead 6-5. Halep then served out the opening stanza at love, concluding the set with a backhand crosscourt winner.
Halep maintained momentum as the second set opened, breaking Barty at love in the opening game to obtain immediate control. The Romanian was seemingly headed for a routine second set after holding at love for 4-2 with a superb backhand crosscourt winner.
But Barty was hardly derailed at this juncture, and the Australian began deploying deft dropshots to flummox Halep, eventually clawing the break back with that tactic to level the second set at 4-4. An ace closed out the next game for the Australian, and, suddenly, Halep was forced to serve to stay in the set at 5-4.
"At that point [after the dropshot to break for 4-4], I was so frustrated, but I knew that she does these things because she is very handy and she is very talented, so I expected those balls," Halep admitted.
"But then I said it was just one point and I have to start the new game. I think I was pretty good with attitude. I was positive and I didn't give up any point. She's a very, very good player and I had to stay like this to be able to win."
Indeed, Halep once again stayed calm despite the Barty comeback. The Romanian held for 5-5 before replicating her first-set pathway with a break for 6-5, as Barty’s errors crept back in at an inconvenient time for the Australian. Serving for the match, Halep exhibited confident aggression, finishing off the encounter with consecutive points won via stunning down-the-line forehands.