Roland Garros: Halep d. Petkovic

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Straddling the baseline with the fast feet of a woman charging the finish line, Simona Halep raced to a career breakthrough. She controlled the court skillfully to build a one-set lead, then managed her emotions coolly to rally from a break down and seal a trip to her first Grand Slam final with a 6-2, 7-6 (4) dissection of Andrea Petkovic.

A year ago, Halep fell to Carla Suarez Navarro in the first round of Roland Garros. Since that loss, the Romanian has roared to a 64-13 record with seven titles, raised her clay-court record to 12-2 this season, and now stands within one win of her first major title.

Back, knee, and ankle injuries punished Petkovic in the past—she was ranked No. 138 when she lost in the second round of French Open qualifying last year—but she bounced back from it all in a rousing comeback that saw her win the Charleston title in April and pound 2012 French Open finalist Sara Errani in the quarterfinals.

Coping with the pressure of a potentially career-changing match was a major challenge in a match of first-time Grand Slam semifinalists. Petkovic's spiking nerves and Halep's stinging drives conspired to torment the No. 28 seed at the outset. Petkovic flattened three shots into net, then pushed a backhand wide to drop serve in the opening game. Taking quick steps to adjust to a net-cord, Halep crunched a forehand winner to back up the break for 2-0.

Though she stands just 5’6”, Halep is skilled hitting the ball on the rise, is well-balanced off both forehand and backhand, drives the ball down the line accurately off both wings, and packs potent power from compact swings. Petkovic faced three primary problems in the first set:

1) Halep treated her first serve as an invitation to tee off, winning seven of 15 such points.

2) Straddling the baseline to take the ball on the rise, Halep controlled the forehand-to-forehand exchanges and changed direction effectively. The Romanian rarely looked rushed in breezing through a spree that saw her win 12 of 14 points to extend a 2-1 edge to a 5-1 advantage.

3) Taking charge of rallies within the first couple of shots, Halep won 13 of 15 points played on her first serve in the opening set. She ran into a slight speed bump serving it out before sealing the 28-minute set on a Petkovic backhand error.

Credit Petkovic for limiting collateral damage from the first set and raising her intensity in the second.  Controlling the center of the court, she drew to deuce in the fourth game. A deep backhand return set up a forehand winner as she scored her only break of the day for 3-1.

When stretched wide on the forehand, Petkovic often slapped at the shot harder rather that lifting it higher to give herself more margin over the net and recovery time. Three such miscues, including spraying an inside-out sitter that left Petkovic cringing, handed Halep break point. Petkovic netted a backhand to drop serve and Halep hammered a series of forehands to hold at love for 3-all.

Serving from behind, Halep threw down successive love holds to force a tiebreaker, which featured five mini-breaks in the first six points. Halep got away with a poor drop shot that sat up when Petkovic pushed her running reply long for a 5-3 lead.

On match point, Halep, who had stretched Petkovic all day with the slice serve wide, banged a flatter serve down the middle, raced up to the short return, and crunched a forehand to end it. She dropped her racquet and thrust her arms in the air wearing the wide smile of a woman who has swept every set here. Six years after she captured the French Open junior title, she'll face 2012 champion Maria Sharapova for a shot at the senior title. It's a rematch of last month's Madrid final, which Sharapova won 1-6, 6-2, 6-3.

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