MELBOURNE, Australia – On this day, at least, the great movers outfoxed the big hitters.
And so world No. 1 Simona Halep and former No. 1 Angelique Kerber will square off in an Australian Open semifinal on Thursday that may well turn out to be the defacto final, without taking anything away from the two other contenders.
Kerber had a surprisingly easy time of it with No. 17 seed Madison Keys, dispatching the 22-year-old American 6-1, 6-2 in 51 minutes.
Keys, one of the most powerful servers in the game, didn’t tally a single ace. Much of the credit for that must go to Kerber.
The German lefty, who turned 30 during this tournament, arguably is playing as well as she did in 2016 when she won two majors and made the final of a third. Actually, she might well be playing even better.
“She takes time away, especially with her forehand down the line. So what might be considered a ‘safe ball’ against some people isn’t, because you know you’re going to be on the run. And she will come forward, and she just does a really good job of balancing getting every ball back but also putting you in a bad position,” Keys said.
“I think she definitely played one of the more aggressive, probably more aggressive than any other time that we have played each other. I mean, she was coming forward. She was hitting winners. I really didn’t have an answer for anything today.”
After a roll, Halep on a roll
As for Halep, who began her Australian Open campaign by rolling her ankle in her first-round victory, the road may have had more challenges than she had hoped for. But she made it.
Her effort against No. 6 seed Karolina Pliskova in a 6-3, 6-2 win was, in some ways, a mirror image of Kerber’s effort against Keys.
Halep won twice as many points when returning Pliskova’s big serve as Pliskova did returning hers.
Pliskova who briefly was world No. 1 last year, doesn’t move as well as Keys. But she’s a little older and perhaps still a little better with the shot selection under duress. She also is more outwardly calm on the court, although Keys is making good strides in that area.
But as with Keys against Kerber, the Czech also had no answers against Halep. She got off to a roaring start, winning the first three games. And then … pffffft.
“I think she just plays always good against me, so I don’t know where is really the problem. So I need to change something maybe for next time. … I don’t think I was playing that bad after (going up 3-0). We were just going through the rallies. I think she’s reading my game pretty well,” Pliskova said.
“My serve is not that effective on her. She returns pretty well. She’s strong on the backhand side. I think there is couple of, you know, moments and points where I can for sure play better.”
Kerber a bad matchup for big-hitter Keys
Pliskova said that Halep just likes her game – even in practice. She said the Romanian likes her pace, uses it to her advantage. And she doesn’t hit it hard herself, which makes the Czech have to try to create the pace herself. “She just use my (pace). Then in the end, I’m the one who is running,” she said.
Keys looked poised for an even deeper run here. But she ran into a full-form Kerber, against whom she has taken just two sets in what is now eight consecutive losses.
“I know I’m good from the defense, and this is what makes me strong also that I know that I can run, that I can bring a lot of balls back. But on the other side I know that I have to try to improve my game, as well. I know that I can play aggressive. I show this so many times during my practices. Now I just try to do it also during the matches,” Kerber said. “I think this is what was the goal for this season, and I try to improving it in every single match.”
The head-to-head between Kerber and Halep was heavily weighted towards Halep early on. But the two met five times during Kerber’s golden 2016 year – once in Fed Cup, once at Wimbledon, twice during the North American hard-cour summer, and then at the WTA Tour finals in Singapore at year’s end.
Halep managed just one victory, in the semifinals in Montreal.
They haven’t played each other since.
This is, by a long way, the biggest occasion in which they have faced each other.