Simona Halep has yet to lose a set against her opponent in the Adelaide International quarterfinals, Aryna Sabalenka, who is battling on in the wake of the tragic loss of her father.
Simona Halep vs Aryna Sabalenka is live from Adelaide on Thursday 16 January at 1pm local/2.30am GMT
Sabalenka’s father passed away unexpectedly at the young age of 43 over the off-season, a tough blow for the 21-year-old Belarusian.
‘During the pre-season it was tough to practice mentally,’ Sabalenka said. ‘I didn’t think too much actually. I couldn’t leave, because I knew it was a tough situation with my family and I couldn’t leave them but somehow I needed to go. I wasn’t excited about the matches, I just went there because I have to.’
Life – and tennis – goes on, though, and wins for Halep and Sabalenka in Adelaide have thrown up this promising clash between two women ranked just eight places apart.
Two-time Grand Slam champion Halep, runner-up at the Australian Open to Caroline Wozniacki in 2018, ended 2019 by failing to make it out of her group at the WTA Finals Shenzhen but still had every reason to be satisfied with a season which saw her win her second major title at Wimbledon and finish runner-up to Kiki Bertens in Madrid and Elise Mertens in Doha.
Injury intervened too often for Halep in 2019 and her strong season did rather fizzle out after her sensational Wimbledon win, the Romanian failing to win back-to-back matches at any of the five tournaments she played after the Rogers Cup in Toronto in August (where her run ended in a retirement to Marie Bouzkova).
But if Halep can stay fit, she has every reason to feel optimistic for 2020. Reunited with Darren Cahill, Halep is currently ranked world no. 4 and will hope to improve on her showing from January 2019, where she lost her opening match in Sydney to Ashleigh Barty before having the misfortune to run into Serena Williams in the round of 16 in Melbourne.
Halep has already improved on it, in fact, beating Ajla Tomljanovic 6-4, 7-5 to open her campaign in Adelaide, the Premier-level tournament which has replaced Sydney. Tomljanovic, a wildcard, beat Yulia Putintseva in the first round and Halep had to battle hard against the powerful Australian, who erased a 2-5 deficit in the first set to get back on serve and also retrieved an early break in the second set before capitulating on serve at the death.
Halep was satisfied with having served seven aces, which will raise money for the bushfire relief effort (the Romanian joked before the tournament that because she didn’t serve many aces, she would donate every time she gave Australian coach Darren Cahill a hard time instead).
‘I feel like I served pretty well today, seven aces, so it’s good for the donation.
‘And I was moving pretty well. I was strong on my legs. I could respond very well to her very hard-hit balls.
‘It was a little bit tough that it was the first match of the year, and even if you practice weeks in a row, it’s not like when you play a match. So I need a little bit of time. I need some matches and then I can feel it better. But it was okay.’
I thought it was a very solid start to Halep’s season, and she has the opportunity to capitalize on it and make her first semifinal of 2020 as she takes on another very powerful hitter in Sabalenka.
The 2019 season was a bit of a wild ride for Sabalenka, who had raised expectations very high with a superb 2018 but struggled to live up to them. Nevertheless, the 21-year-old Belarusian bookended her season with titles, winning Shenzhen in January and defending her Wuhan Open title and claiming the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai in September-October to finish her year on a high.
Then came the tragic death of her father, which will clearly have blighted her off-season and affected her preparations for this season. Sabalenka is also without a coach, having parted ways with Dimitry Tursunov.
Under the circumstances, it’s not been a bad start to 2020 for Sabalenka. She failed to defend her Shenzhen title, defeated in the second round by big-serving left-hander Kristyna Pliskova, but already has two wins under her belt in Adelaide and the first was extremely tricky: A 5-7, 6-1, 7-5 victory over the unpredictable, unorthodox Su-Wei Hsieh.
Sabalenka backed up that victory with a 7-6(4), 6-2 win over Bernarda Pera to reach her first quarterfinal of the season and set up her third career clash with Halep.
Both of their previous matches have gone Halep’s way in straight sets, the Romanian winning 6-2, 6-2 in Shenzhen in 2018 and 6-3, 6-4 in Cincinnati later the same year. Sabalenka was on a superb run of form at the time of their Cincinnati clash, having already beaten three top-20 players to reach the semifinals, but she was also a bit fatigued and got her tactics all wrong, trying to compensate for Halep’s frustratingly brilliant defense by hitting harder and harder, attempting to overwhelm her with sheer power instead of constructing points.
Sabalenka does have the capacity to construct points and play more patiently, but it’s a difficult balancing act for her and she might not be in the right frame of mind at the moment to walk that tightrope. Halep served well against Tomljanovic and a similarly strong performance should see her through to the semifinals in Adelaide.