Simona Halep vs. Karolina Pliskova - Courtney Nguyen
Pliskova and Halep, two players on very opposite sides of the game-style spectrum, have charted two divergent paths to Thursday's semifinal. They're both on the verge of a major breakthrough.
But who would have ever thought it might happen like this?
For Pliskova, the No.1 ranking is on the line on Thursday. The 25-year-old Czech has been refreshingly honest about her fortnight in Paris, where she's played below her standards and yet finds herself two wins away from her first major title.
The Czech came into this year's tournament having won just two matches at Roland Garros. Clay remains the only surface on which she has yet to make a Premier-level final. Her biggest weapons, the forehand and serve, have been neutralized throughout the tournament. Bacsinszky (57%) and Halep (50%) have been more successful than Pliskova (48%) behind their second serves over the fortnight. She also ranks behind the under-powered pair at saving break points - Bacsinszky has saved 73%, Halep has saved 66%, compared to Pliskova's 54%.
Pliskova's clutch play has been a difference-maker. When she's needed a stunning shot, it has been there for her. Confidence can do amazing things and the World No.3 just believes that at the end of the day, even her bad tennis is pretty good.
"You can see I'm dangerous even without playing my best tennis, because probably everyone is in shock with how am I playing," she said with a laugh. "I believe I can play well."
Pliskova indeed raised her level to play her best match of the tournament against Garcia, despite being out-hit on winners off the ground. But the most remarkable stat from the win was her unforced error count: 13. If Pliskova isn't giving away cheap points, she immediately becomes a tough out.
That's the challenge for Halep, who is coming off a seemingly miraculous comeback from a set and 1-5 down to beat No.5 seed Elina Svitolina, 3-6, 7-6(6), 6-0, saving a match point en route. The Romanian's bid for No.1 is also on the line on Thursday, as the Roland Garros title would not just give her a maiden Slam title but it would also move her to No.1.
The biggest question for Halep is whether she can come down from her great escape and refocus on the task at hand in 24 hours. Based on her post-match press conference, the indication is yes. She was peppered with questions about her comeback win and Halep dutifully answered but also gave the impression that she had already moved on, politely steering the conversation away from the match.
Halep leads the head-to-head 4-1 and this will be the pair's first meeting on clay. By most accounts, Halep was the favorite going into the tournament after her strong clay season that saw her make the Stuttgart semifinals, win Madrid, and make the final in Rome. Pliskova wasn't even the "Pliskova" with the most wins on clay this season, carrying a 4-4 record compared to her twin sister Kristyna's 5-3 record.
On paper, on form, and on this surface, Halep is the favorite. This year, the scheduling has favored Halep, who has avoided the rain and impossibly windy conditions that have affected some matches. Last year, Halep came into Paris in good form and was felled by the weather in her surprise loss to Sam Stosur in the Round of 16. She'd held a commanding lead before the rain came and completely unraveled on the resumption. This year, she comes back from the brink against Svitolina thanks to her new positive attitude, to put herself into her second Roland Garros semifinal.
Last fall, Pliskova put together an incredible tournament in New York to make her first Slam final. She came into the tournament in good form after winning Cincinnati and played incredible tennis to beat Venus and Serena Williams to make her first major final, where she led soon-to-be No.1 Angelique Kerber by a break in the final set before running out of gas.
Fast forward to this fortnight in Paris. The Czech came in downplaying her chances of making the final, has not had to face a Top 25 player to make the semifinals, and if she beats Halep she'll face an opponent in the final ranked no higher than No.31 to win her maiden Slam title on a surface that is, by far, her least favorite.
There are few things more satisfying in sports than seeing a player have a full circle moment. For Halep and Pliskova, Thursday's throwdown gets them one step closer to their major breakthrough.
Bacsinszky vs. Ostapenko - David Kane
One of the main takeaways from the WTA Clay Court Power Rankings - besides the fact that seven of the Top 10 women went on to reach the second week at Roland Garros - was an apparent contrast in styles, how no single game was essential to success on the surface. Aggressive players with sufficient weight of shot can hit through even the slowest of conditions, while craftier veterans could rely on an arsenal of spins and slices to dice and dominate.
It’s only fitting, then, that both semifinal match-ups feature that contrast in style, but the spectrum will certainly reach its logical extremes for the birthday bash between Ostapenko and Bacsinszky.
The 19-going-on-20-year-old Latvian is the modern game, personified. She hits hard and fast, capable of crumbling even the most well-built walls - just ask Caroline Wozniacki. The ultimate millennial, she can answer your question in 140 characters or less, and make faces that speak 1000 words.
“I mean, I'm just trying to give the best answer I can!” she laughed after her quarterfinal win over Wozniacki.
A junior Wimbledon champion, her first two finals came on hardcourts, but she kicked off the clay court season with new coach Anabel Medina Garrigues, who once held the Guinness World Record for having the most titles on the terre battue among active players.
“It’s really nice to work with her, because she's very experienced and she knows a lot of players.”
The hire immediately paid off as Ostapenko finished runner-up in Charleston and reached the semifinals in Prague, capping her clay court preparation by taking a set from Garbiñe Muguruza in Rome.
Looking for her first major Slam result, she would find it in her favorite city, winning a battle of big-hitters against 2010 finalist Samantha Stosur, and improve her head-to-head to 4-0 against Wozniacki, a former No.1 who had been enjoying a career renaissance before taking three straight losses to the Latvian dynamo this spring.
“Every time I go on court to play against her, I just know that I have to stay aggressive, but to not go for every shot because I have to be consistent.”
That an ostensibly streaky and impatient youngster can outwit the tour’s preeminent defender should spell bad news for the rest of the field, but if anyone can crash Ostapenko’s party, it’s fellow birthday girl Timea Bacsinszky, who turns 28 on Thursday.
Into her second French Open semifinal out of the last three years, Bacsinszky brings more to the table besides a pitch-perfect backhand, a shot as clean and powerful as Ostapenko’s fearless forehand.
The Swiss star neutralized the likes of former World No.1 Venus Williams and pre-tournament favorite Kristina Mladenovic with the sort of variety one would expect of a self-described “clay court specialist.”
“With my forehand, I try to give as much spin as possible,” she said after surviving Williams for a second straight year in the Round of 16.
“For the past few weeks I’m sending quicker balls with my forehand. When I have the perfect timing, it can go out there like a cannonball.
“I didn't feel this was the case all the time. Perhaps a few times,” she clarified with a wide-eyed exuberance but a world-weary smile, which take turns belying and accentuating the wisdom of her words.
No longer the ingénue who became the first since Martina Hingis to win back-to-back titles at Les Petit As, she will face shades of her former self across the net as she aims for a maiden Grand Slam final. The duo played doubles last fall in Beijing, and their contrast in styles helped them reach the quarterfinals.
“Lucky her, she's way younger than I am. But maybe lucky me, experience-wise. I don't know.”
Not knowing is half the fun of this encounter; the pair will be playing for the first time in what is undoubtedly the biggest match of their careers.
But such descriptors will mean little to either combatant on Court Philippe Chatrier. Ostapenko will turn 20 steadfast in the belief that her semifinal will be the first of many opportunities for Grand Slam glory. As for Bacsinszky, her “limitless” mantra should leave her equally unlocked to treat the crowd to a fight they won’t soon forget.