French Open 2018: Simona Halep-Garbine Muguruza fight for No 1 spot; Sloane Stephens-Madison Keys face off once again

Paris: With the French Open women’s semi-finals taking place later on Thursday in Paris, four well-known faces from summer 2017 are in a position to make headlines again. Simona Halep and Garbine Muguruza will face off of the first spot in the final – and fight for the No 1 spot in the WTA rankings. Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys meet in the second semi-final in a rematch of last year’s US Open final.

Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza, Solane Stephens and Madison Keys. Agencies

Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys. Agencies

When the draw was made at the Orangerie of the French Open exactly two weeks ago, gasps were heard plenty of times with names such a Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka finally being back in the women’s draw of the French Open.

At the end four women remain –and thus a thrilling semi-final on Thursday (after the completion of the men’s quarter-finals) awaits.

With Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, familiar names of the last few majors have put themselves into contention for Slam glory once again.

Halep and Muguruza

Halep, of course, came agonisingly close to taking her first Slam in Paris last year, only to fall short at the hands of an electrifying Jelena Ostapenko, who stormed to the Roland Garros title in fascinating fashion.

As if to reflect the last few months, not just the chance to win her first Slam, but also the No 1 ranking will be on the line for Halep when she faces Garbine Muguruza.

“In this moment it's zero (distraction)”, the Romanian smiled about the fight for the No 1 spot. “It was before because I really wanted to get there, but now my goals are different”.

The last time Halep and Muguruza met on the court was during the Cincinnati final in August 2017 – once again with the No 1 ranking for Halep in reach, had she won. But the Romanian came out flat, finding herself on the receiving end of a tough 6-1, 6-0 defeat against last year’s Wimbledon Champion.

Halep goals have shifted and particularly this tournament she has been open about handling her nerves coming into the tournament, the matches, occasionally having to bounce back from bad starts against Alison Riske in her first round – or Angelique Kerber in her quarter-final win on Wednesday.

Suffice to say that the 26-year old would be well advised to click into gear properly from the start in the semi-finals because Muguruza has been looking in fantastic shape throughout the entire fortnight in Paris – even if her results leading up to Paris, such as her first-round loss to Daria Gavrilova in Rome, haven’t been confidence inspiring.

“There is no point to be sad about what happened in Rome, because now it doesn't really matter”, Muguruza concluded her pre-tournament press conference – and has been tearing up the Parisian clay with steely determination since.

Navigating her way through a tricky draw full of former Roland Garros champions such as Svetlana Kuznetsova (first round), Samantha Stosur (third round) and Maria Sharapova (quarter-finals), the 2016 champion has been looking razor-sharp. Particularly against Stosur and Sharapova, the 24-year-old was terrific and although she disagrees, Muguruza feels like the favourite coming into the semi-finals based on her clinical displays so far.

“I don't feel I'm favourite for this match, because she's played better than I have this year. She loves clay. She loves Roland Garros. She's shown it. It's a great match. It's a great semi-finals. I'm motivated, and that's it”, Muguruza said on Wednesday.

Stephens and Keys

In the bottom half of the women’s draw, Americans Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens have been working their way through brackets, where higher touted names like Elina Svitolina, Jelena Ostapenko or Petra Kvitova had fallen earlier. Just like in last year’s US Open final, the two good friends and compatriots will be battling it out on a big stage once again.

“When we get on the court, it's time to compete. But before that, we are not going to be weird and awkward and make it, like, weird for each other. Now I just have to go find her, because I need to tell her some juicy stuff. I just went and searched for her in the training room”, Stephens laughed in her press conference following her quarter-finals.

The 2017 US Open Champion hadn’t necessarily been rounding into stellar form before Roland Garros but at the very latest in Miami, Stephens once again showed why she is such a danger for other players in big matches. Thanks to her sublime athleticism and great ball-striking, she can essentially “shut the court down” against her opponents, slowly smothering them with controlled aggression, injections of pace or go on lock-down defensively. All within one point. The 25-year-old displayed exactly that against Russian youngster Daria Kasatkina on Tuesday and there was no getting past the 2017 US Open champion anymore in the second set.

“Sometimes I start well and sometimes a little sluggish. I knew I needed to keep swinging no matter what, even if it was very close, so that's what I did. And when I got my opportunity at 4-3 to break, I was like, It's go time”, Stephens explained. Just like at the 2017 US Open, Stephens has embraced “go-time” tremendously well again at the French Open this year. When the opportunity arises, whether it is her section of the draw or in a match, the 25-year-old has been swinging away without being all that fazed by it.

For Madison Keys “opportunity” and the “big moment” can be a trickier customer. With her game being big enough to dominate proceedings against many players, it can sometimes turn into a double-edged sword if Keys finds herself struggling with nerves. Big margins can suddenly become much smaller much like during the US Open final last year when the occasion got to the 23-year-old.

In Paris, things have been a little calmer for the American up until her quarter-finals.

“Honestly, the US Open feels like it was 12 years ago at this point. I obviously rely on what I learned there and how to manage my emotions and manage the moment, but there were so many late nights and I was so tired. It feels completely different here”, Keys said after her win over Yulia Putintseva.

The charge of Lindsay Davenport has been improving her relationships with the clay step by step (“It grows on me a little bit more every year”) and raced into the semifinals of the French Open without dropping a set.

“I'm going to have to be the one to try to open up the court and go for my shots. I obviously lost to Sloane at the US Open, but, you know, I feel like on clay it's a little bit of a different matchup”, Keys previewed the semi-finals against her good friend.

If Keys is able to shake off any nerves early, the encounter between her and Stephens should be a lot closer than in the US Open final but Stephens’ big-match moxie cannot be underestimated – neither today or possibly on Saturday.


Updated Date: Jun 07, 2018 10:33 AM

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