Garbiñe Muguruza stopped Victoria Azarenka’s outstanding run of 14 wins in the quarter-finals at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia, coming from a set and a break down to reach her third semi-final in Rome where she will meet Simona Halep, who advanced into the last 4 after her opponent, Yulia Putintseva, was forced to quit mid-match with an injury to her lower back.
If I play my best game and if I feel great physically on court, I have a big chance to win the match. But every time is different, because she's playing so hard. You don't really know what to expect. It's tough every time. So I don't plan for a specific match, because you never know on court. Simona Halep
“I think it was a tough match. I knew it was going to be a tough match,” Muguruza said. “She’s a good player, she’s playing good, she’s with a lot of confidence.
“I knew it was going to be a tough battle. I was ready for it. I stood behind her and waiting for my opportunities.
“She was playing great at the beginning. She took the first set. I kept myself together and said, ‘Okay, let’s start another battle in the second set’.”
It was a heavyweight bout between two former World No 1s at the Foro Italico and the result was up for grabs almost until the very end when the No 9th Spaniard took the honours, 3-6 6-3 6-4, after 2 hours and 19 minutes.
“I was in the right place when the opportunity came and I took it,” Muguruza assessed. “At the end of third set, it was just a matter of one-game difference.
“I’m happy I played the right shots and I stood aggressive. I went for the match the whole time. Never felt down. I went for the match.”
The contest was of high quality, not only because of both players’ ball-striking skills, but also for their tactical adjustments throughout, particularly evident in a magnificent final frame in which Muguruza led 3-1 but had to fight off a point to fall behind 3-5.
Muguruza earned two break points for a 2-1 lead, but she could not convert either of them after forehand errors, after which Azarenka held serve with a volley before she crafted her first break point chance when the Spaniard sent her backhand long.
The unseeded Belarusian won five points on the trot to open up a 4-1 lead and while the No 9 seed was able to keep the deficit to just the one break, she could not prevent Azarenka eventually serving the set out with little fuss, finding a smash and service winner on the last two points.
The second set became a tenser affair that featured 7 breaks of serve in 9 games as Muguruza, somewhat lost after losing the first set, coughed up a double-fault, a plethora of errors and an erroneous challenge to twice go down a break.
The World No17, however, was finding her range on return and began to take advantage of the sprinkling of double-faults that had hitherto been the only vulnerability in Azarenka’s game.
Finding a series of authoritative forehand winners, Muguruza broke back immediately both times, and then delivered the set’s only convincing hold to move up 3-2.
The 2016 Roland Garros champion dropped serve to love again in the 7th game, finishing with her third double-fault.
As the 26-year-old served for the set, Azarenka threatened another resurgence as the quality suddenly rose several notches, with the US Open finalist saving a first set point with a phenomenal forehand pass on the run, and 3 times making her way to break-back point.
Muguruza summoned all of her intensity to close out the game, finally sealing it after 4 deuces with a service winner on her second set point.
The deciding set opened with much the same pattern as the second: an initial sequence of exchanged breaks, broken when Muguruza began to pull away, nailing a backhand winner down the line for a 3-1 lead.
By now, both players were playing some of their best tennis of the day, making for a number of riveting baseline battles.
The decider started with 3 consecutive breaks and as Muguruza earned her second with a backhand winner down the line in the 4th game, she opened up a 3-1 lead.
Azarenka broke back in the 6th game to draw level to 3-3 and held to love to take a 4-3 lead.
She then held a break point to go up 5-3, but Muguruza saved it with 2 service winners, reeling off the next 10 points to break serve at love in the 9th game and holding 3 match points, which she finally converted on her third chance when Azarenka struck her backhand into the net.
Simona Halep will be next for Muguruza after the Romanian got a retirement from Yulia Putintseva who withdrew down 6-2, 2-0 due to a back issue.
Muguruza, who has won 4 from 6 against her fellow French Open winner, said: “It’s a semifinal. It’s what I expect these type of players to face.
“It’s always a battle, again. She’s playing good. She’s a good clay court player. Every surface, but a good clay court player, as well.
“I’m just looking forward to another battle, because from now on, every match is a battle. Especially now you’re facing one of the best players. I’m excited. I’m excited to be part of this.”
Top seed and favourite for the title, Simona Halep reached the semi-finals after Yulia Putintseva, who had played two back-to-back lengthy matches in the second and third rounds against Petra Martic and Elena Rybakina, retired through injury when the Romanian was leading 6-2, 2-0, after 47 minutes.
This is the 5th time Halep has reached the semi-finals in Rome, having lost twice at this stage in 2013 and 2015, and making the finals in 2017 and 2018, losing out to Elina Svitolina both times.
The Kazakh clocked up 7 hours and 22 minutes on court this week and had shrugged off any ill effects, saying: “When you get this winning spirit… you actually don’t feel that much tired.”
On Saturday, however, the US Open quarter-finalist’s initial attempts to shorten points was evident, and it paid off for a time against Halep as she conjured up some of her trademark drop-shots and some excellent backhand winners down the line, to bring up the first break opportunities of the match in the 3rd game.
“The big picture is just to be focused against the very fighter players,” said Halep about the particular challenges of playing someone like Putintseva. “To break her, I think in my opinion, is just to play a little bit aggressive but also with a little bit of height, changing the rhythm.
“Because she’s changing the rhythm, it is not easy to find your own rhythm.
“Also the drop-shots were not easy, because she has a very, very good hand. But I paid attention. Some of them I got.
“Then maybe she missed because she felt stressed because I’m there and I’m focused on the ball.”
Slamming an inside-in forehand return winner gave her an opening in Putintseva’s next service game, and the Wimbledon champion outlasted her opponent to break when the World No 30’s slice drifted wide.
Halep’s down-the-line strikes proved more effective as the set progressed, while Putintseva arguably went to the drop-shot too often.
The Kazakh an off-court medical timeout between sets, and although she continued to essay some valiant shotmaking on resumption, she was unable to keep up with Halep through two deuce games and called it quits.
Up next for Halep in a bid to reach her third Rome final will be a tantalising clash of former Grand Slam champions against No 9 seed Garbiñe Muguruza.
“Every time I played well against her, [I was] as much as possible aggressive,” remarked Halep. “If I play my best game and if I feel great physically on court, I have a big chance to win the match.
“But every time is different, because she’s playing so hard. You don’t really know what to expect. It’s tough every time. So I don’t plan for a specific match, because you never know on court.”
Halep is chasing the one major clay title she is yet to claim after twice losing in the final at the Foro Italico and.
“It’s one of the biggest goals now,” The Romanian said. “I love Rome, I love Italy, and every time I have a chance I come on holiday here, so I feel really good when I play here in Italy.”