Top-seeded Simona Halep finally found her mojo and barely broke into a sweat, cruising past lucky loser Magdalena Frech in just under an hour with the loss of just two games into the Prague semi-finals on Friday; while 3rd-seeded Elise Mertens took over 2 hours to get past wild card Eugenie Bouchard in three sets to meet Kristyna Pliskova in the last 4.
Even if I’m not yet at my highest level, I’m improving, which is good. I’m happy about it... I don’t feel insecure on court. I feel that my game is going to be there soon. I just have to work a little bit more. Simona Halep
“The whole game… was better today,” Halep said after converting her first match point with a backhand winner to beat the Pole, ranked 174. “I’m happy that I can play better and better, day by day.
“It was a good one and I’ll take it.”
Halep struggled earlier in the week, needing three sets to knock out her first and second round opponents, Polona Hercog and Barbora Krejcikova but settled in from the get-go offering Frech few opportunities to make inroads.
The 28-year-old Romanian showed no signs of rust as she dominated the last 7 games against Frech to seal the victory in style.
“I felt better on court today. The fact that she was not hitting very strong meant that I had time to play my game, to be more aggressive,” Halep told reporters.
“I did better than previous days. But those days helped me to find the rhythm and the energy on court. I recovered well… I moved better, was more aggressive… that helped me to finish the points, to get the confidence back.
“Even if I’m not yet at my highest level, I’m improving, which is good. I’m happy about it… I don’t feel insecure on court. I feel that my game is going to be there soon. I just have to work a little bit more.”
Frech earned her spot in the main draw after having lost a two-and-a-half hour 7-6(7) 7-6(2) match to former Top 30 player Lesia Tsurenko in the final round of qualifying.
Playing her second tour-level main draw of the season, the Pole made the most of her opportunity, beating Elena-Gabriela Ruse and Arantxa Rus for a berth in her first WTA quarter-final.
In her sixth match of the week, Frech had few answers to the in-form World No 2, and managed to hold serve just once in the 59-minute match.
“It was not easy also for her, as she played a tough match yesterday,” Halep continued. “I think I hit the ball stronger, I opened the court better and I finished some drive volleys.
“It was good because the ball was coming a little bit softer than yesterday [against Krejcikova], so I just had to go there and be aggressive.”
After the pair traded breaks to begin the match, Halep sprinted through the next 5 games before the Polish No 4 found some resistance late in the opener.
She saved 3 set points on serve in the 7th game to force Halep to serve out the set, and created 2 break point chances of her own at 5-2, forcing Halep to find some of her best tennis.
The two-time major champion came up with the goods from there, with a pair of big backhands and her first ace of the match helping her seal the game and the one-set lead.
Halep cruised from then on, particularly on serve, and dropped just 4 points on her delivery, landing 81 percent of her first services.
She won Dubai in February, her last tournament before the tour’s 5-month hiatus, and is now looking for her second final of 2020 against either compatriot Irina-Camelia Begu or Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo, whose quarter-final was suspended when Begu was leading 6-2, 0-1 and rain suspended play.
“Both of them are very good players and the semifinals are always tough,” Halep observed. “I’m here just to give my best, to fight until the end and to try to win the match.”
Earlier, Belgium’s Elise Mertens reached the last-four by squeaking past a confident Eugenie Bouchard, 6-4 1-6 6-4.
The No 3 seed was pushed all the way by the wild-carded Bouchard in what proved to be a highly competitive encounter that was decided by fine margins as both players impressed.
Mertens took a high-quality opening set but Bouchard, a former World No 5 now ranked 330, hit back emphatically in the second.
The Belgian, who is ranked 23, successfully dug deep to secure the victory after 2 hours 18 minutes to set up a semi-final meeting with Kristyna Pliskova, who had earlier progressed as Ana Bogdan was forced to retire in the first set of their encounter.
“She hit the ball pretty well today, she made me run a lot,” Mertens said of her opponent, who hit 33 winners to 30 unforced errors throughout. “Her serve is tough to return. All credit to her for making me have a tough match. In the end, it was a mental game.
“I think the difference was physical, mental, maybe more mentally at the end. The games were pretty close,
“The first set was pretty close, in the second set she played really well, made fewer mistakes, became more aggressive, but I think at the end, it was just that one break. Just one service game made the difference.”
After an easy hold from each player to begin the match, neither would find it comfortable to win their service games in the remainder of the set.
Although it was Mertens who fashioned the first break point, it was Bouchard who took the initiative as she won the 3rd game, but this was short lived as her opponent immediately fought back.
Both players were hitting a fine ratio of winners to unforced errors, and while Bouchard was the more aggressive, she ultimately succumbed in the 10th game of the set when she fired long trying to save set point.
The Canadian remained unwavering despite the near miss, and continued her aggression in the second, benefitting as Merten’s accuracy briefly let her down.
Two break points were fashioned in the very first game, and while Mertens saved the first with a fine serve down the ’T’, pushed wide Bouchard on the stretch, it was only a temporary reprieve.
Bouchard kicked on impressively, breaking twice more as she cruised to level in 31 minutes for the loss of just a single game.
Her momentum was halted at the beginning of the decider after two comfortable holds apiece before a brief lapse from the Canadian in the 5th game when 3 points escaped without great difficulty and although Bouchard clawed them back impressively, a 4th break point broke her resistance.
Two un-returnable serves at the beginning of the next game were the foundation for Mertens to consolidate her advantage, and there were no scares in the closing stages.
“Of course, after five matches, you try to enjoy the game, try to get the good results and try to get those matches in again,” Mertens said. “After five months, it’s a little different, there’s a little bit of nervousness maybe, but I managed it well and I’m happy in the semifinal.”
Mertens next plays Kristyna Pliskova, who advanced after Ana Bogdan retired due to a left foot injury while leading 5-2 in the first set of their quarter-final.
Bogdan was making quick work of Pliskova before the injury forced her to abandon the match.
Pliskova, the 2017 finalist in Prague, will hope to get off to a better start in Saturday’s semi-final against the rock-solid Mertens, who holds a 2-0 record over her.
“I’ve beaten her in the past, but there’s been so many months in between,” Mertens said. “She’s a great player, I’m excited for it.”
The Prague Open is the second European tournament since the WTA Tour restarted amid the coronavirus pandemic, with strict health protocols in place, and action can be viewed live on Amazon Prime.