Melbourne | Halep and Muguruza into quarters
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Simona Halep, the World No 3, and Garbiñe Muguruza advanced to the quarter-finals at the Australian Open on Monday, with wins over Elise Mertens and Kiki Bertens respectively.
You know what? Who cares about the ranking, honestly. I feel like it’s just a sign of probably the last results. At the end you go out there and you play. I don’t even know the rankings of the ones I’m playing. I know who they are. I know the matches we’ve had. But it doesn’t affect me so much. Garbiñe Muguruza
While Halep’s 6-4 6-4 win over Mertens, the 16th seed from Belgium, was expected, Muguruza’s 6-3 6-3 upset of the Dutch No 9 seed, Bertens, indicated the Spaniard’s return to the form that won her 2 Grand Slam titles.
Both Halep and Murgurza have won at Roland Garros and at Wimbledon, and both are former World No 1s, but the Spaniard suffered a decline of fortunes over the last couple of years, ending 2019 ranked 36 in the world, the first time since 2014 that she had finished the year outside the top 20.
Muguruza, 26, reunited with Conchita Martinez, her fellow Spaniard and the 1994 Wimbledon champion, at the start of the year in the hope of reviving her failing career with remarkable results.
“When you talk to another player, you don’t have to put too many words, you right away understand each other,” she said.
As part of her reboot, Muguruza spent a few days in the off-season climbing Mount Kilimanjaro to clear her mind of tennis and has returned with renewed vigour, making her a very dangerous unseeded floater in the draw where just 3 of the top 10 seeds now remain, led by top seed Ashleigh Barty, who takes on 7th seed Petra Kvitova in the quarter-finals on Tuesday.
The third is Halep, who used a mid-match swing of 6 straight games, and a late push to get over the line on Sunday, putting away former semi-finalist Mertens to reach the quarters after an hour and 37 minutes.
The Romanian withstood a stern effort from the Belgian, who defeated her in the pair’s last meeting to win the Qatar Total Open in Doha last February, but came through to her 4th quarter-final Down Under.
“I had in my head she came back in that match, and I have just to pay attention on every ball, not giving up at all, because she can come back strong,” Halep said after the match.
“Mentally, I think I did a great job today at 4-All with those break points, game points. But in the end, I got the game and then I served very well the last game. I feel like I played a better match than all the matches since I’m here.
“I feel happy about that, and I’m trying just to stay focused. I like how I feel.”
It was a hard-fought and high quality match in which the 24-year old Mertens rallied from 3-1 down to hold a 4-3 lead and was the clear aggressor, striking 16 winners to Halep’s 6, and 16 unforced errors to Halep’s 3.
The reigning Wimbledon champion found another gear in the middle of the match, and won 6 straight games en route to building a 6-4, 3-0 lead.
Although she lost her double-break lead in the second set when Mertens continued to show the form that took her to the final four in Melbourne 2 years ago, Halep secured the decisive service break at 4-4 on her 5th break point, and then held serve to love to win the match.
Halep recorded 21 winners to just 8 unforced errors in a masterful counter-punching effort that she needed to counteract the Belgian’s total of 36 winners and 38 unforced errors.
The 2018 Roland Garros champion secured herself a cheque of A$525,000 and 430 WTA points, and next will face Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit, No 28 seed, winner over Poland’s young talent, Iga Swiatek, 6-7(4) 7-5 7-5.
I’m just going there and do my job, because I really feel good,” Halep said. “I feel prepared to face her.
“Kontaveit, I don’t know if we played together. Probably once. She’s strong.
“I’m here just to face any challenge I have. So I’m not thinking negative about the game. I just want to go there and to give my best. This is everything I have in my mind.”
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Muguruza underlined her return to form with her emphatic win over Bertens to reach the quarter-finals on Monday where, in the last 8, she faces German 17th seed Angelique Kerber or 30th seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia, who play off in the night session.
After a barren 18 months, the Spaniard says she is enjoying having Martinez back on her coaching team and has flickered back to life in 2020, reaching the semi-finals in Shenzhen at the start of the year before pulling out of Hobart in the quarter-finals with a virus.
“First day I was not feeling good at all [in Melbourne] but every day it’s improving,” she said.
Muguruza emphatically won the first set in 30 minutes against a shell-shocked Bertens.
She took the momentum into the second set, breaking for a quick 1-0 lead, only to be broken back immediately.
The resurgent Spaniard broke Bertens once more for 3-2 and comfortably held for 4-2, breaking again for a 5-3 lead and putting the Dutchwoman under pressure with some powerful groundstrokes from the back of the court.
She failed to put Bertens away on her 1st match point, though, but sealed the win with another big forehand, this one pinging down the line.
“I feel good in this tournament. I’m super concentrated on every single match, especially because I started the tournament so-so,” said Muguruza. “I feel like my body’s getting healthier.
“It’s a Grand Slam, we are all very concentrated here. For me, it’s one of the tournaments that motivates me the most.”
It was Muguruza’s second consecutive victory over a Top 10 player this fortnight, following up her 3rd round victory over World No 5 Elina Svitolina with another two-set victory over the World No 10.
The 26-year-old last reached the quarter-finals at a major at the 2018 French Open, where she was beaten in the semi-finals by eventual champion Halep, and was a quarter-finalist in Melbourne in 2017.
Unseeded in the draw, she is currently ranked 32nd in the world, 14 places lower than where she was 12 months ago. Not that it bothers her in any way.
“You know what? Who cares about the ranking, honestly. I feel like it’s just a sign of probably the last results,” she reflected. “At the end you go out there and you play.
“I don’t even know the rankings of the ones I’m playing. I know who they are. I know the matches we’ve had. But it doesn’t affect me so much.
“Of course, the higher you are, the more beautiful it is. But it’s not that important to me no more after these years.”
Needing just 68 minutes to seal her victory inside Rod Laver Arena, Muguruza hit 19 winners and 6 aces, breaking serve 5 times, to advance to a quarter-final meeting with either Angelique Kerber or Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
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Meanwhile, Anett Kontaveit surged through her titanic 3-set clash with Swiatek, rallying from a set down and a late fightback from her teenage opponent to become the first Estonian to reach a first Grand Slam quarter-final, 6-7(4) 7-5 7-5 at the Australian Open.
Kontaveit looked to have things all wrapped up when she took a 5-1 lead in the final set, but Swiatek treated the Melbourne Arena crowd to a tense ending before the Estonian emerged victorious after 2 hours and 42 minutes on court.
Swiatek made her first major breakthrough at Roland Garros last spring, where she upset Wang Qiang and 2016 Olympic Gold medalist Monica Puig en route to the fourth round.
Playing another second week of a Grand Slam tournament, the 18-year-old cut a much more confident figure than the player who won just one game in this very round against Halep in Paris, and broke serve to start the match.
Tied at 3 points apiece after the first change of ends in the breaker, the Pole took control from there, winning 4 of the next 5 points to put herself one set away from the final 8.
Swiatek took a medical timeout after the tiebreak, but broke to open the second set before Kontaveit quickly levelled, exchanging breaks once more as the No 28 seed moved within 4 points of a deciding set and forced the decider 2 games later with a backhand return winner.
Kontaveit rolled through the first 3 games and sped to 5-1 with the finish line in sight, but Swiatek stepped in and capitalised on some tentative play from her higher-ranked opponent, smacking a backhand return winner of her own to break serve a second straight time, later levelling the match again.
The Estonian steadied to stop the run of games against her and earned her 1st match point when Swiatek pulled a forehand wide and it was all over a point later when Kontaveit pushed the Pole out wide and forced one last error to clinch the win.
In all, the Estonian struck 29 winners to 35 unforced errors, and while Swiatek finished the match with more winners, she also struck more errors, 42 to 41, and converted 37% of her break point opportunities against Kontaveit’s 64%, 9 of 14.
Standing between Kontaveit and an Australian Open semi-final debut is Halep, the two having played twice in 2017, with the Romanian winning both encounters in straight sets.