French Open 2017, women’s semis preview: Halep-Pliskova tussle for No 1 spot, birthday battle on cards

After a tumultuous 11 days of action, French Open 2017 has thrown up an interesting semi-final line-up — one former runner-up, one former semi-finalist, a player who had won only two matches at French Open before this year and a youngster who had never won a round in the main draw.

Regardless of what happens in the last three matches of the tournament, we are assured a first-time Grand Slam winner. Here’s a look at the four semi-finalists and their paths to the last-four.

Timea Bacsinszky (30) vs Jelena Ostapenko

Head-to-head: First meeting

Jelena Ostapenko and Timea Bacsinszky will meet for the first time in the French Open semi-finals. AP

Jelena Ostapenko and Timea Bacsinszky will meet for the first time in the French Open semi-finals. AP

Bacsinszky and Ostapenko share their birthdays on 8 June, but that’s all that they have in common. The first women’s semi-final will be a clash between two contrasting styles of plays and players.

Ostapenko, who turns 20 on Thursday, is an explosive, aggressive baseliner. She isn’t just a ball-striker, she’s a ball-basher. It’s always all-or-nothing for the young Latvian, which also results in her erratic performances. She is also known to be volatile and expressive on court, and her heated on-court row with Naomi Broady in 2016 is carved in the tennis halls of infamy.

Ostapenko’s game is better suited for quick surfaces but under new coach Anabel Medina, she has produced some tremendous results over the last two months on clay. She has registered a 20-4 win loss-record on clay (including qualifiers and Internationals), which includes a finals run at Charleston and a semi-final appearance at Prague.

On her way to her maiden Grand Slam semi-final, Ostapenko has beaten Rio Olympics gold-medallist Monica Puig, former finalist Samantha Stosur, and 11th seed Caroline Wozniacki. What’s even more impressive is that she has hit 172 winners over five matches in the tournament so far.

Ostapenko has never won a tour-level title in her career so far, and her only previous result in the French Open main draw was a first round loss. The last player to have won his maiden career title at a Grand Slam was Guga Kuerten, and he did that right here at the French Open on, coincidentally, the same day that Ostapenko was born (8 June, 1997).

If Ostapenko can be described as feisty, her semi-final opponent Bacsinszky is almost demure in comparison. While the 47th-ranked player relies on power, Bacsinszky, the 30th seed, uses a combination of crafty angles and deft touches.

The red dirt might be Ostapenko’s least favourite surface, but her Swiss opponent is quite at home on the courts of Roland Garros. It was her love for this tournament that prompted her return to tennis after she had distanced herself from the sport and gone back to school to study hotel management. It’s where she says the “magic” first happened for her.

Bacsinszky, who turns 28 on Thursday, reached the semi-finals here in 2015, where she led by a set and a break before succumbing to a tough loss to Serena Williams, the eventual champion. In 2016, she was knocked out in the quarter-finals by Kiki Bertens. This year, she will be hoping to improve her best result in Paris.

She has had a difficult season before the French Open, failing to win more than two matches on the trot. But the tide has turned in her favour over the last 10 days.

She breezed through her opening three rounds, dropping only nine games in the process. In the fourth round, she brushed aside Venus Williams after dropping the opening set 5-7. In her quarter-final against home favourite Kristina Mladenovic, the counter-puncher displayed tact and patience to win on a rain-interrupted day without losing a set.

It will be an intriguing first-time battle between the two players and only one of them will be celebrating a birthday bash.

Karolina Pliskova (2) vs Simona Halep (3)

Head-to-head: Halep leads 4-1

Simona Halep leads the head-to-head against Karolina Pliskova 4-1. AP

Simona Halep leads the head-to-head against Karolina Pliskova 4-1. AP

The second women’s semi-final between Pliskova and Halep isn’t just a clash for a shot at the title, it could also decide the World No 1 ranking. The second-seeded Pliskova needs just one more win to dethrone Angelique Kerber from atop the WTA rankings. If Halep goes on to win her maiden Grand Slam title, she will snatch the No 1 spot from Kerber come Monday.

This semi-final clash could prove to be a breakthrough one for both players; win this match and they would become heavy favourite for the title on Saturday. No one seems to be more shocked at Pliskova making the semi-finals than the Czech player herself. She came into Roland Garros with a miserable 4-4 record in the preceding tournaments on her least preferred surface.

Pliskova has admitted with brutal honesty that she has been playing far from her best tennis. Her booming serve and powerful forehand have been largely ineffective, yet she finds herself in the last-four. Before this year, she had won only two matches at Roland Garros; in 2017 she has won five straight rounds.

Pliskova has only defeated one seeded player — Caroline Garcia in the quarters — en route the semis but had two tricky matches against Ekaterina Alexandrova and Veronica Cepede Royg.

The 6’1 tall Czech’s serve and power-led game also offers a stark contrast to the diminutive Halep’s defensive, grinding style suited perfectly for clay. The semi-final will be their first meeting on the red dirt but it’s definitely advantage Halep.

Simona ‘Houdini’ Halep had a cloud of fitness concerns hanging over her after she twisted her ankle in the Rome final. However, after a successful claycourt season – Stuttgart semi-finals, Madrid title and Rome final – Halep came in as the heavy favourite. Halep hadn’t dropped a set till the quarters with wins over rising youngster Daria Kasatkina and another claycourt specialist Carla Suarez Navarro.

In her last-eight match against Elina Svitolina, Halep was trailing 3-6, 1-5 before she staged a miraculous escape, saving one match point on her way. Halep clinched 12 of the last 13 games of the match to seal her spot in the semi-finals in spectacular fashion.

Halep credited her new-found positive attitude on court for her recent performances, which was spurred due to her coach Darren Cahill refusal to work with her after a terrible three-set loss at Miami. With Cahill back in her box since Madrid, she is poised to return to the final for a second time after 2014.

Pliskova has produced spectacular clutch play when required the most, but she will need her other weapons to click if she wants to stand a chance of defeating her Romanian opponent. If Halep does go on to lift her first Grand Slam trophy, she would make a worthy World No 1.

Updated Date: Jun 08, 2017 11:44 AM

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