By Mark Poulose
KEY BISCAYNE - An unfamiliar chant rang through stadium court on Thursday evening when No. 1 player in the world, and 7-time Miami Open champion Serena Williams, took on No. 3 Simona Halep for a chance to vie for a title against Carla Suarez Navarro on Saturday.
“SI-MO-NA! SI-MO-NA!” bellowed the crowd throughout the match, cheering on the 23-year-old Romanian tennis star against the world’s best player and 19-time grand slam champion Serena.
Yet, the crowd’s cheer worked to no avail.
Fresh off the heels of her 700th career victory, Serena did what she always does—ignored the noise—and ultimately defeated the No. 3 seed 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 in a taxing match lasting two hours and eight minutes. Halep was making a bid to be the tour’s top player, but the world No. 1 thwarted her attempt after her gutsy three-set performance.
“I feel like [the match] was on my racquet and I really had opportunities in the second. I just didn’t take them,” Williams said. “That is something I can’t do going into the Grand Slams coming up.”
Despite her assessment of her performance, Serena defeated one of the hottest players on tour.
Halep came to Miami winning her tour-leading third title of the year at Indian Wells, and had won more matches than any other player on tour this season. She was looking for her 25th of the year on Thursday.
“I think her game was great,” Williams said. “She plays so good… I like her attitude. I like how she gets pumped up. I like how she fights.”
After breaking Halep two times in the opening set, Serena entered a proper battle for the final two. Halep found her rhythm and challenged the powerful Williams from the baseline, unafraid to enter the ring with one of the most dominant baseline hitters to ever play the game.
Her strategy nearly worked. Halep probed and attacked the forehand of Serena, forcing an alarming 37 unforced errors on that side and 59 overall. The final set remained on serve until the final game, in which Serena broke Halep and was eventually able to find play consistent enough to win.
“I [hit] more errors than I did in my last match, which I thought was impossible,” Williams said. “I’m just not at my best level right now and it’s a little frustrating.”
Thursday’s win over Halep was the 101st victory against a top 10 opponent for Serena in her career, another extraordinary feat accomplished by the most dominant player of her generation.
Including her two weeks here in Miami, Serena has held the top spot in the WTA rankings for an astounding 110 consecutive weeks. Her current reign at No. 1 is the fourth longest consecutive streak in history.
The pair was slated to play in the semifinals at Indian Wells, yet Serena withdrew before the match citing a right knee injury. Serena showed no signs of knee trouble in her match Thursday evening, gliding about the court with ease and hitting with immense power.
It has been a remarkable season thus far for Halep, who is the only top-10 player to have defeated Serena since the beginning of 2014. In addition, Halep has won titles this year at Indian Wells, Dubai, and Shenzen.
Her entrance at the Miami Open was just the fourth of her career. Her previous best result at the Miami Open had been the third round.
Next, Serena will face 12-seed Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain. Suarez Navarro has defeated four seeded players en route to the final, including Venus Williams, Aggie Radwanska, and Andrea Petkovic.