Halep, Swiatek maintain Miami collision course after opening wins

Halep, Swiatek maintain Miami collision course after opening wins

Former world No. 1 Simona Halep won 11 of the last 12 games to defeat Caroline Garcia in three sets, and may yet renew her rivalry with reigning Roland Garros champion Iga Swiatek in the fourth round of the Miami Open.

Rivals Simona Halep and Iga Swiatek maintained their Miami Open second week collision course with opening round wins on Thursday.

Projected to face off at a third straight major tournament after splitting Roland Garros and Australian Open encounters, Halep rallied from a set and a break down to win her 400th career match and defeat former world No. 4 Caroline Garcia, 3-6, 6-4, 6-0, while Swiatek eased past Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships runner-up Barbora Krejcikova, 6-4, 6-2, earlier in the day.

"That's impressive that I've won so many matches," Halep said after learning of the milestone in her post-match press conference. "I've had many years in the top, and I may feel a little bit tired of all the pressure I've had, but I feel so much more experience. When I face tough moments in matches, I know what to do, so I can say it's from those 400 victories!"

Twice a semifinalist in Miami, Halep was playing her first match since an Australian Open quarterfinal defeat to Serena Williams, having opted out of the Middle East swing citing a back injury. Though the Romanian led Garcia by a healthy 7-1 head-to-head, their most recent encounter at a 2019 Fed Cup tie went three sets, and the Frenchwoman famously conquered the former world No. 1 to win her biggest career title at the China Open in 2017.

Halep was playing her first match since the Australian Open (Getty Images)

Warmed up from a first-round victory over Halep’s compatriot Mihaela Buzarnescu, Garcia was in fine form to start, saving a break point in her opening service game and went on to nab the only break of the first set, ultimately serving it out with an ace.

"It was a good match, in my opinion. She started very well and her serve bothered me a lot, particularly her kick. I needed time to get used to it and to get a rhythm."

Halep, who tested positive for COVID-19 last year, aimed to battle back but appeared ill at ease early in the second set, calling a medical time-out to address a right shoulder injury after failing to convert three break points in a marathon second game.

"In Australia, I felt [my shoulder] in the second round against Tomljanovic, a match I won't forget. The back injury came back and I had problems with that, so when you have an injury, you may start to force other things and hurt yourself. When I came to Miami, I didn't feel pain anymore, but after some tough practice sets with other players, I started to feel it again. It's starting to get a little bit worse, but I only feel it when I serve, so I'm trying to recover as much as possible so I can serve well. I'm a little bit afraid of this pain, so I have to be careful, so I'll see how it holds up in the next few days."

The No. 3 seed soon found her footing, however, and reeled off 11 of the final 12 games of the match to secure victory in just under two hours. In the end, Halep struck 26 winners to 16 unforced errors, and converted five of 10 break point opportunities to book an intriguing third-round clash with Anastasija Sevastova, a former world No. 11 who reversed a final set deficit to up-end American teen Coco Gauff, 1-6, 6-2, 6-3.

Swiatek won her first career hard-court title in Adelaide last month (Getty Images)

"She cuts the rhythm, and you never know what ball to expect," Halep said of the Latvian. "Sometimes she plays very flat, and other times high, slices, drop shots. It's tough to play against her."

Swiatek, who pushed Halep to three sets in Melbourne after defeating her en route to her maiden major title in Paris, still looms in her section after an afternoon win against Krejcikova.

“Tactically, I was prepared because my coach watched her matches in Dubai as well as her first round,” Swiatek said of the 25-year-old Czech after the match. “I knew it would be tough and that she’s playing really good. I’m glad it didn’t stress me out; I was just pumped up and motivated.”

Long known for her doubles talents, the five-time women’s and mixed doubles major champion first broke through at Roland Garros last fall, reaching the fourth round. The 25-year-old has undoubtedly maintained that momentum in the new season with a quarterfinal finish at Melbourne's Grampians Trophy and a run to the finals in Dubai that included upsets of Maria Sakkari, Jelena Ostapenko, and Svetlana Kuznetsova.

The reigning Roland Garros champion would nonetheless prove too strong in their first career meeting, staving off a late surge in the first set and reversing a break deficit in the second to advance in just over an hour on Court 5.

“The first match can always be tricky, so I was trying to be more focused and work really hard on my legs because the conditions were also really tough,” Swiatek said. “There was the sun and humidity, but there was also the wind that was moving differently on each side of the court. It was hard to adjust in the beginning, but I felt really strong, and like my game is here.”

Swiatek won her first title of the season in Adelaide, and will next play Croat Ana Konjuh in what has been a long-awaited comeback for the 2016 US Open quarterfinalist. At just 23 years old, Konjuh has already endured four elbow surgeries in an effort to regain her elite form, and won her first main draw match since 2018 on Wednesday; the former junior Australian and US Open champion backed that up in some style with a 6-4, 6-2 defeat of No. 17 seed Madison Keys to book a first meeting with the Polish teenager.