No. 1 goal — Simona Halep poised to reclaim the throne

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Simona Halep sat in her chair alongside the umpire in Hard Rock Stadium on Wednesday afternoon, leading Qiang Wang 6-4, 6-5 in the quarterfinals of the Miami Open.

Halep took deep breaths, her shoulders rhythmically rising and falling. Her arms were sheened with perspiration, her rounded cheeks flushed. She is barely 5-foot-6 and likes to put her hair in a schoolmarmish bun, yet she looked like an arm-weary prizefighter sitting at her stool, waiting to answer the bell for the final round.

And no wonder. Her performance in the preceding five games against Wang had been brutal as well as exhausting. With a set in hand but trailing 5-1 in the second, Halep had gone on a five-game tear, at one point winning 25 of 32 points, including a run of 15 straight.

The changeover concluded and the No. 2-seeded Halep finished off her unstrung opponent, advancing to the semifinals to meet No. 5 seed Karolina Pliskova on Thursday — with a return to the No. 1 spot in the rankings should Halep win that match. Dating back to 2016, Halep is 4-1 in her past five matches against Pliskova, winning their only two meetings on hardcourts.

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Halep, a Romanian who is the reigning French Open champion, didn’t even know she was one match removed from playing for No. 1 honors. Her coach told her at the conclusion of Wednesday’s match. Shortly thereafter, she said: “[The No. 1 ranking is] pretty much in my head. I’m happy to be in this position again. It gives me confidence because staying two months in the offseason I didn’t believe I would be in this position again so fast.”

Her resurgence is more noteworthy because a lower-back injury forced her to miss much of the fall season, including the WTA Finals. She admitted two months ago at the Australian Open that the experience was “very scary.” The injury forced her to set aside her rackets for a six-week period during which she did nothing but exercises to repair and strengthen her back. She has been pain free this year, but has had some trouble finding the game that carried her to the pinnacle in 2017. Halep has been in only one final this year, and lost it in Doha, Qatar, to No. 21-ranked Elise Mertens.

“It doesn’t mean everything to get back to No. 1 tomorrow, or the next week. It’s more important to finish the year at No. 1,” Halep said. “But every day you are No. 1 is a special day.”

Halep may be slight of build, but she’s a real heavyweight in a sport in which some players can make up for the punch they lack in the arm — and Halep is no power server — with the power in their feet. As Wang learned in this second attempt to bag a win over 2018’s year-end No. 1 player, you may be able to outhit Halep, but you will only outrun her when her mood is on the ebb or she’s struggling with injury.

“It’s more important to finish the year at No. 1. But every day you are No. 1 is a special day.”

Simona Halep

But for a brief period Wednesday, it looked as if it might be a special day for Halep’s opponent. At No. 18, Wang is currently the highest ranked in a fleet of talented Chinese players. She’s quick on her feet. Her steady backhand screams “stay away,” and the option to test her forehand is risky. It’s an explosive, unpredictable shot — when it’s properly calibrated. She can powder it with such gusto that the effort, and torque applied by her torso, lifts both her feet off the ground. She has an excellent if not a shutdown serve.

Wang’s biggest problem in this match was that while she has many of the same virtues as Halep, she doesn’t quite share Halep’s skills, or her ability to play long rallies and vary her shot selection. Wang is also just a bit more conservative than Halep. As a result, Wang had to enter a track meet with just one other runner — one few can beat.

Halep took control of the match early, seizing a 6-4, 1-0 lead (with a break). But Wang averted a blowout by mounting a vigorous fightback, winning five successive games that exposed a tendency Halep has fought to overcome throughout her career. She gets down on herself, for no good reason. Her game inevitably breaks down.

“Until 1-5 down I was not great,” Halep said of the period when Wang made her run. “I started to be negative, to talk around the court. But I was able to stop, and then it was much better. I focused on the game.”

Few things in tennis are as pleasing to behold as Halep playing confident tennis against a quality opponent. Her height may be a disadvantage in some areas, but her body type gives her a low center of gravity. Combine that with her quickness and athleticism, and it’s easy to see why Halep has often been called the Energizer Bunny of pro tennis.

If you’ve ever wondered how a player of such high skill might feel while engaging in a 20- or 25-shot rally that pulls both players all over the court, here’s your answer: “I feel joy,” Halep said. “I feel happiness because I start to feel the ball, so I can relax and enjoy the time I’m out there. It gives me confidence that I am able to do beautiful points. When I play like this, it makes me feel happy.”

Wang’s commanding position in the second set was deceptive. Everyone in the arena, probably including Wang herself, anticipated a competitive third set. Halep seized that moment of distraction to sneak back into the match. Soon Wang looked like a runner who had somehow overlooked that there was one more lap in the race.

“When I came here I didn’t think at all about the chance to be No. 1, but now that I am one match away I will take it,” Halep said. “Talking about it gives me a little pressure, but I take that too. There’s nothing negative about it. It’s just a great thing.”

If Halep delivers a knockout punch in the semis to reclaim the No. 1 ranking, it will be delivered with her feet, not her fists.

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