Simona Halep's three set victory over Victoria Azarenka means she will now play her third Grand Slam semifinal. The familiar face on the other side of the net will be Flavia Pennetta, who defeated the Romanian in the last 16 at the US Open two years ago. Revenge is on the cards.
September 2013. A new name has been rising up the ranks on the WTA Tour. A small Romanian with a big heart. Her name? Simona Halep. Her ranking? 19th in the world.
During the last three months, Halep has won four tournaments, the first of her career. While constantly representing a name we knew could become big - she won the junior title at Roland Garros in 2008 - things didn't seem to improve for the 21 year old, and she started the year ranked 45th with no real prospect of a breakthrough yet in sight.
After losing in the 1st round of the Australian Open to Sloane Stephens, the month of May brought a glimpse of brilliance as Halep successively brushed aside Daniela Hantuchova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Roberta Vinci and Jelena Jankovic before crumbling to the power of the all-mighty Serena Williams in the semifinal at Rome. With many eyes rapidly shifting towards her, Halep didn't manage to outplay Carla Suarez-Navarro in the first round at the French Open, and people started to write her off once again. But then, she won two tournaments in quick succession - on two different surfaces as well.
The clay of Nurnberg first witnessed her holding up a WTA trophy. Lucie Safarova was Halep's casualty in the semifinals, and her straight sets victory over Andrea Petkovic in the final was quite remarkable back then. Just two days after that, the grass of s'Hertogenbosch followed. After dropping a set in her opening match against Annika Beck, Halep won four consecutive two-set matches, including a 6-0, 6-1 thrashing of experienced Roberta Vinci along the way to her second WTA title. For Wimbledon, the expectations grew even bigger.
Li Na halted the Romanian's breakthrough with a three set win in the second round at the All England Club, but Halep was catching attention fast. A third title, again on clay, followed the next month at Budapest, and a fourth - the biggest so far - was made a reality at New Haven. Names such as Ekaterina Makarova, Caroline Wozniacki and Petra Kvitova fell to the new Romanian sensation. The US Open - the first Grand Slam where Halep was seeded - was just around the corner.
Three matches came and went, and Halep is flying after a tough opening round win against Heather Watson. Donna Vekic and Maria Kirilenko never had a chance. Halep now has the chance to advance to the quarterfinals - the top 8 players at a Grand Slam. But Flavia Pennetta is her next opponent, and the Romanian failed to defeat the Italian in their previous two meetings.
After losing the first set surprisingly easy, 2-6, Halep finds herself down a break in the second as well, but somehow manages to win an epic game on the Pennetta serve, and the match is back up for grabs. At 5-4, Halep has set point, but the heavens open and rain starts to pour down over Flushing Meadows.
It's a long wait until the match finally resumes, and the Romanian can't make use of her opportunity to tie things up when the clouds go away. Although she was big favourite to go through at the start of the match, Halep falls to her more experienced opponent, losing 6-2, 7-6, much to the disappointment and surprise of her fans. Her Grand Slam breakthrough needs to wait more.
Fast forward two years, and Simona Halep is a regular name on the tour having won 11 WTA titles so far. 2014 was a confirmation of her excellence, and her ranking soared to number 2 in the world in August - higher than any female Romanian tennis player had ever been before. She has yet to win a Grand Slam title but was mighty close to doing so at the French Open last year. Maria Sharapova denied her at the end of a very intense final, and young Canadian Eugenie Bouchard stopped Halep at the semifinal stage at Wimbledon the same year. A "breakthrough" happened, one would say, but let's agree that people want more from her - a big, shiny trophy with a bunch of names on it.
A great start to 2015 followed by a shaky summer led to disappointing results at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, but coming back to North America seems to have helped her. After making the final at Toronto and Cincinnati, an Italian stands in the way of Halep's second Grand Slam final. It's Flavia Pennetta - again.
If there's one thing that Halep has showed us over the last two years is that her fighting spirit is top class. She never gives up. She runs like few others and finds motivation in some of the most difficult moments. It is partly what makes her special, and she has shown that to the fullest extent at this year's US Open as well.
"I don't know where I found the power to win this match." Halep smiled as she said it. She must have. She just recorded an outstanding win against Victoria Azarenka to go through to the semifinals. Just like in her previous match against Sabine Lisicki, her mental strength - just as much as her actions on court - guided her to an exhilarating three set win. Azarenka was always going to be a tough match up for Halep. Aggressive and hitting the ball very well, the Belarusian was a constant threat that she had to deal with - and deal with it she did.
But apart from the very intelligent way of doing so which involved taking control of the points, meticulously constructing her winners and defending excellently when needed, Halep had one more thing to worry about. It came just when she was one point away from leveling the match, at 2-1 in the deciding set. Rain - again.
Halep played excellent tennis to win the opening set of the match, but things were slightly slipping away from her in the second. She tried to stage a comeback, but Azarenka held strong and took the match to a decider. Victoria was on her way to victory after she broke the Halep serve to take a 2-0 lead early on. The Romanian fought back, and after a break that lasted about one hour because of the precipitations, cleared her mind just enough for her to concentrate and play her best tennis.
More motivated and better prepared tactically, she came back on court and fired her way to a huge win, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4. The statistics say a story on their own. 76% first serves in, 70% of them won. 40 winners and just 19 unforced errors - not much one can do against those kind of numbers. Halep is playing some of the best tennis of her career, there is no doubt about it.
To face that tennis on Friday will be Pennetta, and we can say the same thing about her form as well. Only once has the Italian been able to reach the semifinals of a Grand Slam in her career - it was the year she defeated Halep. If she can do it again, she would go one step further and reach her first career final.
Halep finally defeated Pennetta in their most recent and fourth meeting - at Miami this April - but there might be space in her mind for the moment the two met at Flushing Meadows two years ago. Halep will want to show the world that she can put that episode behind her. A very likely showdown against Serena Williams could be up for grabs, and with the American aiming to become the first player since Steffi Graf in 1988 to win all four majors in one year, everyone is chasing personal goals or records.
"Halep doesn't look as powerful as Vika [Azarenka], but she is. She is more powerful,” Pennetta says about her opponent. "To create a winner against her, you have to finish the point seven times. She is always there, the ball always comes back. It's going to be a marathon, I think."
Hmm, who would win a marathon between the two? I wonder... Better to focus on the tennis though, because it will be intense.