Simona Halep took apart Victoria Azarenka on Centre Court on Friday to advance to the fourth round at Wimbledon.
Trailing 3-1 in the first set and facing two break points to go down 4-2, the Romanian won 11 of the final 12 games to win 6-3 6-1 in just 66 minutes.
“I’m very satisfied. I think was my best match this year,” said Halep, who has now won her past three meetings with Azarenka, including at Wimbledon two years ago.
“I played really well. I felt actually very confident. I’ve been aggressive all the match, even if I was 3-1 down first set.”
Joining Halep in the last 16 were third seed Karolina Pliskova, No.8 seed Elina Svitolina and China’s Zhang Shuai, who upset 14th seed Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets.
Zhang will next face Ukrainian teenager Dayana Yastremka, who beat Viktorija Golubic to advance to the second week at a major for the first time.
Azarenka entered her match with Halep in incredible form, having routed Ajla Tomljanovic in round two and then combining with Ash Barty later that same day to win their first-round doubles match 6-0 6-1.
Many pundits believed she was playing well enough to beat the seventh seed and former world No.1 Halep, and tennis.com writer Steve Tignor arguably spoke for most journalists when he previewed the match.
“After a season in the wilderness, she seems to be approaching her old self again. She has won her first two matches this week in straight sets, and she was a few points from knocking off top seed Naomi Osaka at the French Open,” he wrote. “Halep is not a natural on grass, and this is a big opportunity for Azarenka to put herself back in the high-level WTA conversation. Winner: Azarenka.”
When Azarenka surged ahead 3-1 on Centre Court behind a barrage of stinging groundstrokes and unrelenting consistency, it appeared the preview was playing out in real life.
Yet suddenly, and inexplicably, her game disintegrated.
“I don’t really know what happened. I started couple games feeling pretty good and stuff and just couldn’t find the court. Missed just way too many easy shots, and those things you can’t afford against top players,” Azarenka said.
“To come out and play like that on Centre Court, very, very disappointed.”
Until 2-3, 15-40, when she held two break points, Azarenka had committed eight unforced errors in almost six games of tennis. In the last three-and-half games of the set, she sprayed 12, handing it to Halep 6-3.
“She didn’t do anything extraordinary, you know, but she was very solid,” said Azarenka, who has not beaten Halep since 2012. “She kept being solid, taking everything that I was giving, and I gave her a lot.”
As this was happening, the Belarusian increasingly looked towards her box in anguish, and grew visibly frustrated, flinging her racquet into the turf and receiving a warning for unsportsmanlike conduct.
While Azarenka was imploding up one end, what got slightly lost was the fact that Halep was a technical and mental rock.
She forced Azarenka to pull the trigger too early and go for slightly too much with her typically swift court coverage, getting to almost everything and putting it back deep and awkwardly in Azarenka’s court.
She said there was no discernible moment where the scoreline, and the match, flipped. “I just kept playing, fighting for every ball. I didn’t think about the score,” she said.
“Then I started to feel more confident and stronger on court. She started to miss a little bit more. Then I just stayed there.”
Halep’s emotional state appeared calm and steady yet intense, and she won the first game of the second set to extend her run of games to six. Azarenka snapped that streak with a hold in the second game and celebrated with a big fist pump.
But it would be the last game she would win.
Halep finished the match with nine unforced errors, while Azarenka’s tally was 33.
Pliskova was forced to contend with wily No.28 seed Hsieh Su-Wei on No.1 Court, a player the Czech didn’t feel like practising with because “you want to go and play normal tennis and not this tennis in practice.”
With that spicy comment the prelude to this third-round match, the two women played out a high-quality match before a packed crowd on the tournament’s second-biggest court, which Pliskova served out to win 6-3 2-6 6-4.
“I think I did quite good. Of course, the second set was not the best. I think I was just too good on the serve. I had a lot of aces,” said the third seed, who is now on an eight-match winning streak after winning the Eastbourne title.
“But of course, tricky, especially on grass. She can make you feel ugly, which I felt at some points. Of course, happy that I’m through.”
Pliskova next plays another Czech Karolina – this one Muchova, who beat No.20 seed Anett Kontaveit.
“I don’t think (that match) is going to be that similar to today,” Pliskova said. “I think there is nothing worse than today (smiling).”
Svitolina, meanwhile, is through to the last 16 after a 6-3 6-7(1) 6-2 win over Greek 31st seed Maria Sakkari.
The Ukrainian’s continued progress through the tournament is remarkable given she trailed Margarita Gasparyan 7-5 3-1 in the second round and even fended off a match point before the Russian was forced to retire injured deep in the second set.
Svitolina next takes on No.24 seed Petra Martic – who got past Danielle Collins – for a place in the quarterfinals.
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