The two highest seeds left in the draw in the ladies singles will meet on Thursday for a place in the Wimbledon final.
I was a little bit nervous before the match, a little bit stressed. I knew that she's going to come and hit the balls very strong. Simona Halep
Simona Halep, on paper now the favourite, is seeded 7th, and has reached the semi-finals for the first time in five years. She will play the 8th seed, Elina Svitolina.
The Romanian came through a tight opening set and eased through to the finish against unseeded Zhang Shuai, 7-6(4) 6-1, to become the first woman through to this year’s final 4.
The pair hadn’t faced off in nearly 3 years, dating back to a 2016 season where Zhang not only stunned Halep in the first round of the Australian Open, but also beat her on home soil in Beijing.
“I expected her to play so well” said Halep. “She beat me the last two times that we played.
“I was a little bit nervous before the match, a little bit stressed. I knew that she’s going to come and hit the balls very strong.
“When she hits…the ball doesn’t bounce that much. It’s really tough to return. But I kept fighting. I knew that I have to be 100% for every ball, then I will break her rhythm a little bit. It happened in the second set.”
Shuai Zhang nearly quit tennis and had invited her family over from China to wave goodbye to the pro tour, once and for all at the 2016 Australian Open, when a stunning run followed, which included a victory over Halep.
It was Johanna Konta who brought an end to Zhang’s Australian run in the quarters, but that run, along with some stern words from doubles partner Samantha Stosur, kept Zhang on the straight and narrow.
“She’s so special for me. Best friend on tour,” Zhang said of Stosur. “We always, after the court, sometimes we eat together.
“We going to eat and we talk a little bit about not only tennis. Sometimes about life.
“Yeah, she’s such nice girl, and she tell me when I said I want to retire, and she really want I keep going to play.
“You know, that’s make me to thinking maybe, okay, I’m going to Australian Open one more time, one more try.
“Yeah, really, really happy I try one more time, and also we won this year in Australian Open doubles. So the life is so nice to me.”
Going in to todays’s match, Zhang held a 2-1 head-to-head record against Halep, but she never believed they would meet again this week.
Last year, her renaissance complete, Zhang announced to family and friends: “I am going to win a Grand Slam title in 2019” – and so she did, capturing the doubles with Stosur in Melbourne.
Coming into this singles quarter-final, her impressive roll call of scalps had already included ex-top 5 player Caroline Garcia, the former US Open semi-finalist Yanina Wickmayer, the former World No 1 Caroline Wozniacki and the fast-rising Ukrainian teenager Dayana Yastremska.
It was the World No 50 who came out of the gates hot, as she totalled 5 winners across the first 2 games as she was the quicker to settle in.
Pushing the ball as deep and as wide as the limits would allow, she was nervelessly focused as she dictated the play.
Amid rallies routinely over 10 strokes, she leapt out to a 4-1 advantage and 4 times Zhang had break point for 5-1, to serve for the first set.
All Halep’s fighting qualities saw her hang on, and it gave her a toehold at the cliff-face, from which the Romanian hauled herself out of the hole.
She began to have a say in the shape of the rallies, although it was draining toil and her audible frustration was evident more than once.
By the time they arrived in the tiebreak, errors were blotting Zhang’s spectacular stroke play.
The intensity was as high as ever, along with the extraordinary mutual work rate, but a forehand mistake from Zhang brought up 2 hard-earned set points for Halep, who needed just the one.
With all her signature fight to the fore, the No 7 seed had edged an epic first set and then she steamrollered the second.
Halep trailed had 4-1 in the opening set, but came through what proved to be a crucial 6th game, in which she saved 4 break points that would’ve seen her trail 5-1, to win 3 straight games to level.
“Winning that…I really believed that I’m still in the set. If the score would have been, like, 5-1, I think the set would have been gone,” Halep admitted.
“I just kept motivating myself and believed that I can turn it around.”
Halep went on to win the set in the tiebreak, winning 5 of the last 7 points to claim her first set from Zhang in 7 years, and eased through the second set behind a pair of late service breaks.
“I really think that she always played well against me, at least when she beat me it was really tough to return the balls and to get the rhythm,” she continued.
“I knew that I had to be strong and not going back too far from the court, so I stayed a little bit more aggressive. She serves very, very well. She hits the ball strong.
“I think she improved in forehand also. It’s strong on both ways. I think she has a great game.”
In front of a riveted crowd on No 1 Court, Halep had prevailed 7-6(4) 6-1 to reach the semi-finals here for the first time since 2014.
“I definitely fought hard in the first set,” Halep told the BBC with satisfaction. “I knew she would come and hit with a lot of power.
“I knew I had to play aggressive as much as possible and be strong, and I did great. I feel fresh, healthy and confident, and I’m playing my best tennis on grass.”
The second set was a reminder that Halep came into this quarter-final leading the remaining 8 players on percentage of return games won (55%).
With her own serve now all but untouchable, she broke for 2-1 and the writing was on the wall.
At the net, the 2 women met with smiles and enormous mutual respect.
Zhang will re-enter the top 40 as a result of her efforts here, and must surely be targeting a return to her career high of 23 in 2016.
As for Halep, this is her deepest Grand Slam progress since she lifted the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen last summer.
Halep’s opponent on Thursday will be No 8 seed Elina Svitolina, who stopped the Cinderella run of Czech Karolina Muchova to reach a major semi-final for the first time, 7-5 6-4, finally clearing the Grand Slam barrier which has seen her lose all 4 previous last 8 appearances.
Muchova, the World No 68, was playing her first Championships and living the dream during this Wimbledon fortnight.
It looked, at first, as if the trend might continue as she worked herself into a 4-1 lead in the first set.
The 22-year-old’s win over countrywoman Karolina Pliskova was a statement of intent as well as being the longest match in the ladies’ singles at Wimbledon 2019 at 3 hours and 17 minutes.
Having stunned the No 3 seed, Muchova nonetheless looked fresh as she settled into the match quickly after dropping serve from 30-0 to begin.
The Czech lost just one point in the next 4 games to take command of the opener, but could not muster a set point after building her own 5-2 lead.
She dropped serve to 15 in the 9th game when serving for the opener, and later surrendered her serve for a 3rd time in a marathon, 6-deuce 11th game that ultimately decided the set.
Fatigue must have been a factor for her against Svitolina, as the Ukrainian hit back to take that first set in 7-5 in 48 minutes.
Muchova also had her chances in the second set, showing great composure when Svitolina served for the match at 5-2.
She broke, courtesy of a Svitolina mis-placed backhand, and the No 1 Court crowd reacted in expectation of a longer battle, but it was not to be as the Ukrainian finished the job on her next service game.
After twice reaching the last 8 at each of the Australian Open and French Opens, Svitolina battled from a 5-2 deficit in the opening set, but ultimately needed to will herself over the line in 91 minutes to become the first player from her country to make a Grand Slam semi-final.
Svitolina first served for a place in the final four at 5-2 in the second set, but never got to match point, and later found herself 2 points away from the victory before Muchova held serve to win back-to-back games.
She steadied herself when it mattered the most, as she played 2 clutch points at 30-30 in the match’s final game, sealing her place in the final 4 with a service winner.
Having lost 7 of her last 8 matches coming in to Wimbledon, Svitolina enters her first career grass court meeting against Halep holding a 4-3 head-to-head edge.
Halep won the last meeting between the two, in a 3-set semi-final at the Qatar Total Open in February, stopping a 3-match winning streak by the Ukrainian against her.
“It feels amazing. It is the first semi-final for me, and I actually didn’t expect it to happen here. It is exciting and I am looking forward to it already,” the beaming 24-year-old said after setting up her last-4 clash against Halep.
“I had to fight for every point, take my chances, and just try to get the extra ball over the net,” she added.
It is all the more remarkable considering Svitolina has been struggling with a knee injury, and has not played at a high level in recent months, heading into Wimbledon without any big expectations.
Still, the Ukrainian has won 5 matches at the All England Club to get to her first Grand Slam semi-final, after beating Muchova in straight sets in an hour and 32 minutes.