PARIS (Reuters) - Simona Halep showed the full extent of her defensive skills to outfox Karolina Pliskova 6-4 3-6 6-3 on Thursday and reach her second French Open final, setting up a showdown against her polar opposite.
The 2014 runner-up, who saved a match point in the previous round, will become world number one if she defeats Jelena Ostapenko, the daredevil Latvian who blazed her way to Saturday’s final.
Third seed Halep, looking to become the first Romanian woman to lift the Suzanne Lenglen Cup since Virginia Ruzici in 1978, benefited from her Czech opponent’s clumsiness in the first set before Pliskova rediscovered her touch.
Overwhelmed by the second seed’s power in the second set, Halep regained the momentum in the decider, frustrating her opponent with her ability to soak up punishment.
“I hope I can play better than the previous time and that the score will be different,” said Halep, who lost in three sets to Maria Sharapova on her first appearance in the final at Roland Garros.
Halep, 18 centimetres shorter than her opponent, made up for the height difference with her smooth shot-making, and eventually had too many tricks in her bag for the one-dimensional Pliskova.
Pliskova’s array of unforced errors meant Halep had a comfortable start, breaking in the third game and holding serve in the following to open a 3-1 lead.
Halep, however, played a tad too safely, and that would backfire.
Pliskova saved a couple of set points at 5-3 -- the first one with a service winner, the second by scooping a delicate inside-out forehand winner -- to stay just a break down.
But there was no real pressure on Halep after all as Pliskova surrendered the opening set when she hit a crosscourt forehand wide -- her 24th unforced error as her favoured weapon, her whipping forehand, became her worst enemy.
She was more focused in the second set, forcing Halep to hit a backhand wide to break for 4-2, then holding for 5-2 after saving three break points.
Suddenly, Halep had to defend, something she does with poise and grace, but Pliskova had recovered her forehand and it made all the difference as she cracked a winner to seal the second set.
However, Halep, the 2008 Roland Garros girls’ champion, was just warming up.
After being sent left and right to chase the ball as Pliskova dictated the point with her forehand, the Romanian, two metres from her baseline, unleashed a gravity-defying forehand passing shot to break for 3-1.
With her back to the wall, Pliskova upped her game and she broke back to trail 4-3 with a nice forehand crosscourt winner, only for Halep to steal her serve in the following game, when the Czech made a dog’s dinner of a routine forehand.
She held her nerve to serve it out, ending the contest with an unreturnable serve, triggering a big roar from the Romanian flag-waving fans on Court Philippe Chatrier.
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Martyn Herman