World #1 Simona Halep will look to continue her excellent form when she takes on Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus for a place in the Cincinnati final. Halep arrived in Cincinnati fresh from claiming the title in Montreal, which surely did much to banish the disappointment of her early Wimbledon exit. Sabalenka, meanwhile, has never beaten a world #1 but has claimed four top ten wins over the past few months. Who will come out on top?
Halep and Sabalenka have met just once previously, with the lack of depth to their rivalry perhaps unsurprising when it is considered that Sabalenka is just 20-years-old. The match came in the quarterfinals at the Shenzhen Open at the very start of the season and Halep won it with ease. The Romanian took Sabalenka’s game apart en route to a 6-2 6-2 victory and went on to defeat Irina-Camelia Begu in the last four and Katerina Siniakova in the final.
Path to the semifinals
Halep, the top seed in Cincinnati, received a bye that doubtless afforded her some much-needed rest. She thus returned to action against Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic, but had to recover from a slow start before triumphing 4-6 6-3 6-3 in a match featuring an overnight rain delay. She then beat Ashleigh Barty, another Australian, for the second time in as many weeks, 7-5 6-4 before besting Lesia Tsurenko 6-4 6-1, in her second match of the day.
Sabalenka began her Cincinnati campaign with a 4-6 6-3 6-4 win over the out-of-form Johanna Konta of Britain, before impressively rallying past ninth seed Karolina Pliskova 2-6 6-3 7-5 to reach the third round where she faced Caroline Garcia. She was again taking the distance, but again prevailed, beating the French sixth seed 6-4 3-6 7-5. That set up a quarterfinal clash with 13th seed and 2017 US Open finalist Madison Keys, who Sabalenka brushed aside 6-3 6-4.
How do they match up?
Halep’s formidable defensive skills will be put to the test in this one by the powerful Sabalenka. The Belarusian is one of the better servers on the Tour, aided by her 6’0” frame and has already struck an impressive 31 aces so far in Ohio. She has weapons in both her forehand and backhand and is willing to use them though it is her forehand that is the most dangerous of the two. She will certainly do her best to keep Halep on the back foot, with Sabalenka never afraid to step in and dictate.
But there are few who counterpunch better than Halep. The Romanian is able to turn defence into attack in a single stroke even when pushed out wide on both her forehand and backhand. She has weapons of her own, with her forehand an impressive shot, but for her the key to this match will be less about attacking herself than drawing Sabalenka into errors. That has been Sabalenka’s achilles heel throughout her budding career so far and will likely be the key factor in this match.
Over the past few months, her poor Wimbledon aside, Simona Halep has finally turned into the serial winner that she had long threatened to become. She’s finding ways to grind out victories even when the odds are against her and summoning great tennis at other times to destroy opponents. The status of world #1 and Grand Slam champion are looking both richly deserved and comfortably worn. Expect her to carry on that winning run with a three-set victory over Sabalenka.