Both Ash Barty and Elina Svitolina came back from the brink in their quarter-final matches at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart on Saturday, while Simona Halep won in straight sets, and Aryna Sabalenka dropped one to advance to their semi-final slots.
It’s exciting to be playing on my birthday. I mean, it’s what I love to do. Playing against another tough opponent, there’s no better challenge and there’s no better way for me to celebrate. Ash Barty
It took nerves of steel from Barty, the World No 1, to struggle past Pliskova, winning 2-6 6-1 7-5, after a minute over 2 hours.
“That was an incredible match,” Barty said. “Just a really, really good battle.”
Pliskova’s late slip meant she still has not won 3 consecutive matches since reaching the Rome final in September, while Barty is now into her first clay-court semi-final of the year after her quarter-final exit in Charleston.
The top seed, however, had looked perilously close to losing to the big-hitting World No 9 from the Czech Republic, as Barty was 5 times within 2 points of being knocked out but fought her way out to take the win.
Barty is gaining a reputation for being a big match player with a ‘never-say-never’ attitude and her last 8 matches against WTA top tenners, stretching back two years, prove the point as she has come out on top in all of them.
“I try and narrow that focus for every single match, regardless of who I am playing,” said Barty, when asked about her remarkable record in the post-match press conference.
“But I think when you come up against top-10 opponents you have to go that level above to be able to play and it forces you to bring your best, to try and be able to compete every single time you are on the court.
“With a lot of the girls in the top 10, we’ve had plenty of matches going either way, different experiences.
“So each time I love that challenge of testing myself against the best.”
Remarkably, Barty has not lost to a top-tenner since being beaten by Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens in the WTA Finals round robin match in 2019 Shenzhen.
Barty came within 2 points from defeat 5 times, as Pliskova served for the match at 5-4 in the third set, but she rallied from a break down to win 4 games on the trot, improving her win-loss record to 5-2 over the Czech.
Pliskova converted both of her break point opportunities in the opening set, while Barty was not able to convert on any of her 3 chances.
Barty went a double break up to take a 4-1 lead in a 4-deuce fifth game of the second, but then coughed up a couple of double-faults to trail 1-2 in the 3rd set.
Pliskova took a 5-3 lead and served for the match, saving 4 break points with un-returnable serves, but she did not make match point, and the Aussie won 10 of the last 12 points to take the hard-fought win.
The Czech converted all 3 break points on Barty’s serve and fended off 14 of the 19 chances she faced, while in the decisive third set with Pliskova serving, the Australian won 13 of 18 second-serve points after the No 6 seed managed to win only 5 of 15 points off the top seed’s second serves.
“In a sense it was probably a match of two sets,” Barty reflected. “In the first set I wasn’t able to build any pressure.
“Kaja was getting in and out of her serving games too quickly and, in turn, was then having freedom on my service games.
“But being able to flip that switch right from the first game of the second set was important. To then make it more of a physical match was what we were after, and over time we were able to get the match back on my terms as much as we expected.”
Barty will continue her first red clay event since her 2019 French Open title run on Saturday against Elina Svitolina, the World No 5, who had to save 2 match points in a harrowing win over another Czech, Petra Kvitova, 6-7(4) 7-5 6-2.
Kvitova, who came in as defending champion, had her first match point with Svitolina serving at 2-5 in the second set, and another at 4-5, but the Ukrainian 4th seed ended up winning 11 of the last 13 games to stun the 7th-seeded Czech.
“A big battle is always very satisfying, and you know that the hard work pays off,” Svitolina said, in her post-match press conference. “It’s always an unbelievable feeling to go through this kind of match.
“In the end, a few points here and there got me back into the match. From 3-5, 4-5 I was ready, fighting and locked in for a big fight.”
In the first set, Svitolina broke back to draw level to 5-5, as Kvitova was serving for the set at 5-4.
The Czech left-hander went up a 6-3 in the tiebreak and grabbed her 2nd set point with a forehand winner and then converted her 5th break point to open up a 3-1 lead.
Svitolina had to face a match point on her serve at 5-2, but she held, forcing Kvitova to serve for the match.
The Ukrainian earned a double break point after Kvitova double-faulted, and Svitolina broke back at 5-4 when the Czech struck her overhead long.
Kvitova held her 2nd match point, but she misfired long again, allowing Svitolina to hold serve for 5-5.
After earning a break in the next game with a passing winner, Svitolina saved a break point to win her fifth consecutive game and then went up a double break to race out to a 4-1 lead.
Kvitova saved 2 match points at 5-1, but Svitolina converted her 4th to complete the comeback win.
The No 4 seed needed 2 hours 37 minutes to win the match, saving 13 of 16 break points, which was a very respectable 81.3 percent.
Barty will hope to celebrate her 25th birthday with a third straight win over Svitolina, who has a 5-2 win record against the Aussie but, perhaps significantly, the Ukrainian has been beaten in the last two meetings, at this year’s Miami Open and the climax to the 2019 WTA Finals.
“It’s exciting to be playing on my birthday,” Barty said. “I mean, it’s what I love to do. Playing against another tough opponent, there’s no better challenge and there’s no better way for me to celebrate.”
Former French champion Simona Halep, the 2nd-seed, had less trouble reaching the other semi-final as she cruised past Ekaterina Alexandrova of Russia, 6-1 6-4, saving 8 of 10 break points while winning 70 percent on her first serve.
Halep is eyeing her first Stuttgart title after a promising start, having lost her two prior outings to both Marketa Vondrousova and Ekaterina Alexandrova, and after taking down the former in her first match in straight sets, she did the same to latter on Friday.
“Yeah, the start is really good,” Halep said later. “Always I am confident when I start the clay court season, but this time was much better than I thought because I had the long break.
“Those matches are really important for my mental. I will take a big plus from these two days.”
The Romanian will meet Aryna Sabalenka from Belarus, who beat Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit, 7-5 4-6 6-1.
The No 5 seed came through the 3-set marathon in 2 hours, 28 minutes, and is the lowest-ranked player left among the final 4.
Kontaveit had lost all 3 previous matches to Sabalenka, but she loves the indoor clay in Stuttgart where she held an 11-3 record and was trying to beat her second Top 10 player of the week.
After converting her 4th set point, Kontaveit forced the match into a decider but Sabalenka broke in the 4th game and coasted the rest of the way, saving 15 of 18 break points against her.
“She fought for every point and played really, really well,” Sabalenka said in her on-court interview. “I was under pressure every second on the court, and I was just trying to handle this pressure.
“I dropped my level in the beginning, and it was tough to come back.”
A quick toilet break off the court and some cold water, brought her game back.
“Sometimes you just need to change the picture.” Sabalenka said. “I kind of tried to cool down myself, and I think I did it pretty well. The cold water helped me to wake up a little bit.
“This was kind a recharge and I think it was really … I mean I’m talking too much right now.”
Sabalenka is excited to be meeting Halep next, saying that she is ‘looking forward to this match’.
“She’s a great player,” Sabalenka added. “I will do everything I can tomorrow.”
At the time, it was just minutes before midnight, and the Belarusian said she would stretch, don compression boots and take a hot and cold shower.
“I will prepare myself as good as I can for tomorrow’s match,” she added. “I have to work for every point, be there from the beginning to the end. Do my best.”
As for Halep, who has won 3 of 4 matches against the Belarusian, she said: “I have played Sabalenka many times. I know what to expect, actually.
“She’s hitting very strong, she’s very powerful. So I have just to focus on my game and try to push her back and be aggressive if I can.”
The WTA’s red clay season, which began this week in Stuttgart and Istanbul. ends in mid-June at Roland Garros.
Both Halep (2018) and Barty (2019) are French Open champions, and the other two semi-finalists here are hoping to join them as major winners, with 4 of Svitolina’s 15 career titles coming on clay, while Sabalenka’s 9 career titles have not.