Muguruza ends Azarenka's run to set Rome semifinal showdown with Halep

Muguruza ends Azarenka's run to set Rome semifinal showdown with Halep

Later Saturday, Karolina Pliskova maintained her title defense hopes, overcoming Elise Mertens, 6-3, 3-6, 6-0. Up next for the Czech is 2019 Roland Garros finalist Marketa Vondrousova.

A pair of former Roland Garros women’s champions will square off in the semifinals of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia after Garbine Muguruza and Simona Halep advanced in completely different fashion on Saturday in Rome.

The ninth-seeded Muguruza held off an in-form Victoria Azarenka, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, in two hours and 20 minutes. The first set was a far cry to the remaining portion of the clash, with Azarenka converting the lone break to go up 2-1. After clawing out of a 0-40 hole to consolidate, she held firm on serve to open a one-set lead.

That soon changed, as the two combined for 12 breaks of serve the rest of the way, Azarenka failing to hold again until the fifth game of the decider. On a 14-1 run coming in, Azarenka had an opportunity to put the match on her racquet at 4-3, but Muguruza denied the Belarusian with a backhand crosscourt winner, and would win the final three games to get across the line.

"I knew it was going to be a tough match. She's playing good, with a lot of confidence [but] I was ready for it," Muguruza told WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen afterwards. "I stood behind her, waiting for my opportunity. She was playing great from the beginning. I kept myself together and said, 'OK, let's start another battle in the second set.'

"I was in the right place when the opportunity came and I took it. At the end of the third set, it was just a matter of a one-game difference. I'm happy I played the right shots. I stayed aggressive. I went for the match the whole time and never fell down."

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Earlier, top seed Halep was cruising against Yulia Putintseva, 6-2, 2-0, when the Kazakh retired with a lower back injury. The two were meeting for the second time in 2020, with Halep also taking their third-round meeting at the Australian Open. The Romanian is looking to raise the Italian Open trophy for the first time, following runner-up showings in 2017 and 2018.

Halep dropped just four games to Muguruza in the semifinals of 2018 Roland Garros, where she would go on to clinch her first of two major titles. The Spaniard, who prior to Halep tasted Grand Slam victory in Paris and at Wimbledon, avenged that defeat in Melbourne this year by coming out on top in their final four showdown.

In the bottom half of the draw, Karolina Pliskova remained on course to retain the title, overcoming Elise Mertens, 6-3, 3-6, 6-0. After losing her first set of the tournament, Pliskova surged to win 72 percent of her points in both her serve and return games to run away with the match. The Czech is seeking her second trophy of the year, having started 2020 by successfully defending her Brisbane crown. 

Awaiting Pliskova in the final four is countrywoman Marketa Vondrousova. The left-hander went a step further than her 2019 quarterfinal showing, ousting two-time winner Elina Svitolina, 6-3, 6-0. Vondrousova, the 2019 Roland Garros runner-up, had never beaten the Ukrainian in three prior meetings, but flipped the script after saving all nine break points she faced.