Roland Garros: Halep d. Kuznetsova
Wrapped in a grey hoodie, Simona Halep curled up on a couch in the player lounge looking more like a college kid killing time before class than the No. 4 seed about to play the most meaningful match of her life.
A three-hour rain delay provided plenty of time for the 22-year-old Romanian to ponder the pressure of reaching her first Grand Slam semifinal, which Halep spent texting to write off nerves. She devoted the rest of her day to pushing Svetlana Kuznetsova into obscure areas of the court while graduating to a major breakthrough.
Driving the ball into the corners to open the court and wrong-footing the Russian with regularity, Halep picked apart a hobbled Kuznetsova, 6-2, 6-2, rolling into the Roland Garros semis without surrendering a set.
Kuznetsova scored her 20th career Top 5 victory when she beat Halep, 7-5, 7-6, on red clay in Stuttgart last month, but lacked the legs to put her to the test today. The 28-year-old Russian has been battling a left hip injury throughout the season and was banged up from her three-hour, 15-minute epic win over Petra Kvitova in round three. Kuznetsova took a five-minute medical timeout after dropping the first set and returned to court with her left thigh taped, but could not move quickly enough to hang with Halep in longer exchanges.
Even at full strength, matching Halep's accurate strikes would have been a challenge. Kuznetsova needed to serve boldly, make this match about spin and angle, and use her heavy topspin forehand to back up her 5'6" opponent, forcing her counter shoulder-high shots.
Instead, Halep handled both the heavy conditions and experienced adversary shrewdly. She took the ball on the rise to rob Kuznetsova of reaction time while stretching her with corner-to-corner strikes to spread the court. Halep broke to open the match then saved a break point to consolidate.
The 2009 Roland Garros champion spun a forehand pass down the line to hold, then amped up the pace on a cross-court backhand, breaking for 2-all. Unfazed, Halep got right to work, breaking on a double fault and backing up the break for 4-2.
Reading the game and disguising the direction of her shots are two of Halep's strengths that stung the No. 27 seed. Serving at 2-4, Kuznetsova hit a wide kick serve drawing a short return. Standing a few feet from net, Kuznetsova could have hit her forehand almost anywhere and held serve. Instead, she clubbed an inside-out forehand right back at Halep, who stood her ground in the corner and smoothly blocked a backhand winner up the line.
It was one point with major repercussions. Two points later, Halep hammered a series of forehands making the Russian retrieve to break for 5-2. Halep served 79 percent, won seven of 10 points on Kuznetsova's second serve and broke three times in the 33-minute opener.
Following her injury timeout, Kuznetsova made a final push. Aiming to end points quickly, Sveta began taking bigger cuts with her forehand. She saved a break point for 1-0 and earned break points in each of Halep's first two service games, but Halep had answers.
Moving beautifully, Halep broke for 2-1. When a stiff-legged Sveta netted a forehand to drop serve, shuffling to her seat down 1-4, it looked like she might pull the plug, but she stuck it out. Halep's only hiccups came when she dropped serve at love for 4-2, and again when she hit three double faults trying to serve it out.
But nerves could not slow her roll, and now the 2008 French Open junior champion will face Andrea Petkovic for a spot in the senior final. Halep has won seven titles in the last 13 months and needs not look far for guidance in her run toward the final. Her manager, Virginia Ruzici, a 1978 Roland Garros champion, is the only Romanian woman to reign in Paris.