Simona Halep survived a scare against Aryna Sabalenka as she fought back from a set down to progress into the Dubai Duty Free Championships semi-finals on Thursday, but 2nd-seeded Karolina Pliskova was up-ended by the young Kazakh, Elena Rybakina.
She’s a little bit taller than me and she has a lot of power. I just had to block some balls, and to get the initiative to go and open the court. Simona Halep
Halep, appearing for the first time since a run to the last four at the Australian Open, rallied from a set down to deny Sabelenka, 3-6 6-2 6-2, avenging a loss to the Belarusian earlier in the year in Adelaide.
“I think I started to play a little bit stronger in the second set and find rhythm,” Halep told the crowd after taking 12 of the last 16 games of the match.
“It’s always tough to play against her because she’s very strong and hits the ball really, really hard, so I had to play faster, be quicker on court and give everything I had to win.”
Halep had to save a match point against Ons Jabeur on Wednesday and again found herself in trouble against the hard-hitting Sabalenka, but she broke for a 3-1 lead in both the 2nd and 3rd sets to earn her 3rd win in 4 career meetings with the Belarusian.
“She’s a little bit taller than me and she has a lot of power,” observed Halep. “I just had to block some balls, and to get the initiative to go and open the court.”
The 2015 tournament winner will now face surprise semi-finalists, American Jennifer Brady after the qualifier continued her incredible run upsetting Garbiñe Muguruza, 6-7(5) 6-3 6-4 in a battle that lasted 2 hours 9 minutes.
“I love playing in Dubai. I just want to enjoy, to take it as an opportunity to win another match,” added Halep. “I know it’s going to be tough. We played in Melbourne, and it was not easy.
“I think she’s got a lot of confidence during these matches. She’s winning against tough opponents and top players. She has a strong game. Her forehand is really good. She improved in the backhand.
“It’s a tough one, but I’m ready to play it. Hopefully I can do my job.”
En route to her biggest semi-final, Brady has seen off Elina Svitolina, French finalist Marketa Vondrousova and now the Australian runner-up.
“I wasn’t feeling my best,” said Brady. “Maybe didn’t play my best tennis, but just found a way to stay in there, compete, come out on top.”
Brady wasted a 5-2 lead in the first set, but won the last 4 games of the 2nd and broke again in the final game of the decider to reach her 3rd career WTA semi-final.
Muguruza felt she wasn’t able to capitalise on her chances.
“I had so many opportunities. I can’t count how many I had,” she said. “They didn’t go my way. I felt like every time I had an opportunity she was playing well the point, serving big, making winners.
“I was expecting a tough match. I mean, she’s playing great. I think she’s confident, her shots are getting in. I think she has a very good serve. Her ball is pretty hard.”
Meanwhile, 20-year-old Rybakina scored another big win ousting former No 1 Pliskova, 7-6(1) 6-3 after an hour 41 minutes, claiming her first win over a top five opponent.
A year ago she was ranked 192 and this week she entered the top 20 for the first time at No 19.
She also has won more matches than any other player on the WTA Tour this year, leads the WTA Tour in the number of aces hit, and she has reached the final of 3 out of the 4 tournaments she has played in 2020, winning Hobart and finishing as runner-up at the Shenzhen Open and last Sunday in St. Petersburg.
Even changing from playing indoors in the Russian winter to playing outdoors in the heat of Dubai has not broken her stride, as in her very first match at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships she defeated recent Australian Open winner Sofia Kenin.
“I knew I have to serve good today,” said Rybakina, who hit 11 aces against Pliskova.
“I knew also that it’s not going to be long rallies. I was preparing myself just to return. First 3 balls I had to play, like, really focused.
“I was trying to do it. It was hot. It was tough match because first time actually I played here in the heat.
“It was really difficult for me to come just from indoors. I thought that I will have problems with the serve because indoors it’s different feeling. I’m surprised with my serve, that I’m really doing good, yeah.”
Despite her defeat, Pliskova was not too disappointed with her week and how she had played.
“She played well. I didn’t do that much wrong,” said Pliskova. “Overall I think I tried to be aggressive, which with her is tough because you don’t get that many chances to be aggressive, especially on the returns.
“It was about a couple points. It could go both ways I think.
“Not every week not making the final is a bad week. For me was not bad week here.
“A lot of positives. I thought my attitude was great.”
In her 4th semi-final in 5 events this season, Rybakina will face former French semi-finalist Petra Martic who took out Anett Kontaveit, 7-6(1) 6-1.