Simona Halep missed the chance to return to world number one as a devastating display from Karolina Pliskova sealed the Czech’s passage into the Miami Open final 7-5, 6-1.
Romania’s Halep would have reclaimed the top spot in women’s tennis if she had reached Saturday’s showpiece following current No 1 Naomi Osaka’s early exit and Petra Kvitova falling to Ashleigh Barty in the last eight.
But Pliskova, the world No 7, had other ideas, rattling off an incredible nine games in a row to blitz Halep and set up an intriguing battle with Australian Barty. The in-form Australian moved into her biggest WTA final, continuing her excellent run in Miami with a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit.
“It wasn’t easy waiting for so long but I managed to stay aggressive,” said Pliskova, who hit 29 winners to Halep’s 18 in the match that finished after 1 am thanks to a series of rain delays. “Ashleigh is a good player, but I am excited for the final.
The South Florida weather played havoc with Thursday’s schedule at Hard Rock Stadium, no more so than when the rains returned with Pliskova on the brink of a brilliant win.
Play was initially halted at 3-3 in the in the first.
When they resumed, Halep edged ahead 5-3 before Pliskova roared back, taking the first set and a 5-0 lead in the second before rain forced them from the court again.
Halep, who recovered from 1-5 down in the second set in her quarter-final match against Wang Qiang, held serve upon the restart.
But in the very next game, Pliskova served out to ruin Halep’s hope of reclaiming the number one ranking she lost when Japan’s Osaka won the Australian Open earlier this year.
Similarly, the first ever meeting between the Barty and Kontaveit was frustratingly punctuated with lengthy rain delays, the longest of which lasted for over four hours.
When the action finally got going, however, it was Barty who managed to keep her composure to get the better of an error prone Kontaveit. The 22 year-old will move into the world top 10 when the new rankings are released and was delighted to wrap up this last-four encounter in just 77 minutes of playing time.
“It was a very long day, I know we had to wait around but it was an opportunity to drink some coffee and watch the golf so I was relaxed,” said Barty who took time out of the game in 2015 to play cricket before returning in 2016.
“When I came out I was ready for business. I didn’t start well but I was able to reset and do what I had to do.”
Having started this semi-final and quickly established a 2-0 lead before the first weather problems began, Kontaveit returned to Hard Rock Stadium’s center court only to be broken for 2-2.
Then came more rain, and more frustrations for the fans and players alike. On resumption, it was Barty who wrestled back the initiative, making inroads on the Kontaveit serve to move 5-3 ahead.
The Australian world number 11 was now firmly in control - she won 87% of points on her first serve which in turn ensured Kontaveit took just one of four break opportunities on offer in the opening set - and a double fault saw Barty move one set up.
Barty’s level noticeably dropped at the start of the second as 19th-ranked Kontaveit began to carve out opportunities to claw her way back into the match.
One breakpoint went begging but when Barty double faulted for the second time in two games, Kontaveit had another chance which was sealed when the Australian hit long.
The Estonian, however, was too inconsistent to keep the pressure on and a sloppy service game allowed Barty to draw level at 3-3.
The final statistics showed Kontaveit won just 58% of points on her first serve compared to 83% from Barty.
She was rushing through her shots and making too many errors - and coach Nigel Sears told her as much during a coaching break midway through the second set.
Yet when Kontaveit was broken again for 5-3, Barty, who impressively beat world number two Petra Kvitova in the quarter-finals, held with authority to move into Saturday’s showpiece.
With AFP inputs