World No 2 Simona Halep has been missing for a while, nursing a shoulder niggle and getting vaccinated, but she returned to the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart sharp as a tack and totally at home on the red clay as she dispatched Marketa Vondrousova, 6-1 6-3, in just 56 minutes on Thursday.
I was a little bit nervous before the match because I played twice against her and she beat me every time. I was a little bit scared of her drop-shots, so [coach Darren Cahill] told me that I have to be more aggressive today, which I did, I did it well. Simona Halep
Also through are four other seeds, with Karolina Pliskova outlasting Jelena Ostapenko, Elina Svitolina outpacing Angelique Kerber and Aryna Sabalenka dismissing Anna-Lena Friedsam, while unseeded Ekaterina Alexandrova upset Belinda Benic to join Ash Barty, Petra Kvitova and Anett Konatveit in the last 8 line-up.
Halep struck 32 winners to just 13 unforced errors en route to claiming her first win over the Czech 2019 French Open finalist.
“Starting the clay-court season makes me very happy and motivated, extra motivated actually,” Halep said with a smile. “I missed playing matches.
“I had a few weeks without an official match and it was kind of tough when I started the match, but my mind was strong enough just to give focus on what I have to play.
“So, I did it great and today, it was a great match… It is important for my mind, for my game, because the clay-court season is going to be very tough.
“Now, this match gave me confidence that my level is high, and if I keep doing the same thing, I will be good.”
Vondrousova underwent left wrist surgery following her breakout run in Paris, and returned to reach the semi-finals last autumn.
Ranked 20, the Czech came into the encounter with an impressive 2-0 head-to-head lead over Halep, having notched 3-set victories over the former World No 1 twice in 2019, but the Romanian dominated her throughout the match, and never faced a break point in the affair.
“I was a little bit nervous before the match because I played twice against her and she beat me every time,” Halep admitted. “I was a little bit scared of her drop-shots, so [coach Darren Cahill] told me that I have to be more aggressive today, which I did, I did it well.”
Vondrousova did use her signature drop-shots to pick up a handful of points during the first few games but, after a hold by the Czech in the opening game, it was all Halep in the first set as the second seed swept to a one-set lead behind sturdy, angular hitting.
They both held serve through the majority of the second, with Vondrousova tightening up her game and staying with the two-time Grand Slam champion through to 4-3 when some miscues let Vondrousova down and she fell behind 0-40.
After saving one break point with an ace, the Czech double-faulted on the second, leaving Halep to serve for the match at 5-3.
The Romanian had a few minor issues of her own after a double-fault and a backhand error put her behind 0-30, but she steeled herself to claim the next 4 points and sailed into the quarter-finals.
There, Halep will play Ekaterina Alexandrova after the Russian upset Bencic, the 8th-seeded Swiss, 6-1 7-5, after an hour 21 minutes, blasting 12 aces and winning 87 percent of her first-service points in the process.
Alexandrova is now 3-3 this season against Top 20 players and finds herself in her 3rd quarter-final of the year.
Like Vondrousova, Alexandrova comes into her meeting with Halep with a positive head-to-head against the Romanian, having won 2 of their 3 previous clashes.
The other quarter-final in the bottom half of the Stuttgart draw will be played between 5th seed Aryna Sabalenka and Anett Kontaveit, who eliminated 2nd-seeded American Sofia Kenin on Wednesday.
Sabalenka played a superb match to defeat German qualifier Anna-Lena Friedsam, 6-4 6-2, in an hour 19 minutes.
The Belarusian, who is making her tournament debut in Stuttgart, struck 34 winners to 20 unforced errors and converted all 4 of her break point opportunities.
A series of delightful drop-shots also demonstrated her confidence in an ever-increasing on-court repertoire.
Friedsam, the World No 125, also contributed her own highlights to a high-quality contest, posting a ratio of 24 winners to 11 unforced errors, but the home-town favourite was only able to convert on just 1 of her 7 break point chances.
In the top half of the draw, World No 1 Ash Barty will take on Karolina Pliskova, who defeated Jelena Ostapenko, 6-7(7) 6-4 6-3, in 2 hours and 23 minutes.
Pliskova kicked off Thursday’s schedule with a thriller and had to rally from a set down to outlast the former French Open champion.
The No 6 seed regained the upper hand in her rivalry with Ostapenko after 2 hours 23 minutes, firing down 21 aces to tie her career-best amount in a single match, the 4th time that the Czech has landed more than 20 aces in a match.
“I did many things today much better than I did yesterday,” she said. “I’m proud of myself that I’m able to change that performance in a day.
“I felt I played really good tennis today – also, she played a really good match. We know that we can really have a lot of unforced errors, which was not the case today.
“For some reason she likes to play me, I think, so she’s always playing really good tennis against me. But it was a great level and I thought I was serving extremely well today for all the match – all the three sets, even though the first set was a bit unlucky.”
The pair’s head-to-head had been deadlocked at 3 apiece ahead of this clash, with Ostapenko having won their past 2 meetings.
Ostapenko had the upper hand in the first half of the match as, from 2-4 down in the first set, the World No 52 overpowered Pliskova with greater intensity off the ground, and rose to the occasion on almost every big point.
Combining aggression with accuracy, Ostapenko fended off 3 break points at 5-5 and saved a set point in the ensuing tiebreak, leaving Pliskova to smash her racket in frustration.
Midway through the second set, Pliskova raised her game, stepping up into court to punish Ostapenko’s second serve, and finding 3 clean return winners to break for 4-2.
Ostapenko had her chances to level the set, saving set points at both 2-5 and 3-5, and breaking Pliskova back with a return winner of her own, but her high-risk strategy was costly and an 8th double-fault conceded the set.
In the decider, Pliskova’s serve rose to new heights as the former World No 1 hammered down 10 aces in the third set alone, capturing the crucial break for 4-2 and maintaining her lead to get over the finishing line.
The last quarter-final will be contested between No 4 seed Elina Svitolina and 7th seed Petra Kvitova.
Svitolina defeated Angelique Kerber 7-6(4) 6-3 in their round-of-16 clash on Thursday, while the Czech had made it through the day before.
The Ukrainian faced a tough test from the 3-time Grand Slam champion, going 3-1 down in the tiebreak before winning 6 of the next 7 points, and she did not face a break point in the second set.