Halep stages huge comeback to make French Open semis

In tennis, the feeling is that players who win a grand slam title usually have to get through at least one difficult match during the fortnight.

If Simona Halep does go on to win the French Open crown Saturday, it is likely that Wednesday’s quarterfinal victory over Elina Svitolina will prove to be the turning point.

How could it not be?

Halep — the pre-tournament favorite based on her clay-court performances this year — looked down and out when she trailed by a set and 5-1 to Svitolina. Having rallied to force a tiebreak in the second set, the third-seed then had to fend off a match point in that tiebreak.

But she got through it — aided by a net-cord winner on her first set point in the tiebreak — and cruised in the third for a 3-6 7-6 (8-6) 6-0 win against the Ukrainian who handed Halep her lone defeat in the month of May in the Italian Open final.

Like her fellow semifinalists Karolina Pliskova, Timea Bacsinszky and Jelena Ostapenko, the 2014 finalist is two victories away from opening her grand slam account.

Feeling more relaxed

“I started to feel more relaxed maybe because I thought it’s finished, and I changed the rhythm,” Halep told reporters. “I put some high balls. I just tried to make her move more, to open the court, and it came.”

Halep spoke Monday about how she improved her attitude on court after a tough loss to Johanna Konta in the Miami Open quarterfinals.

Disappointed with her demeanor between the second and third sets, her coach Darren Cahill — who used to work with former No. 1s Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt — decided not to travel with Halep for several weeks.

That move prompted Halep to “change pretty fast.”

With Cahill — who returned in May — watching from the stands on Suzanne Lenglen court, Halep indeed maintained her focus to avoid elimination.

“I showed that I’m stronger mentally,” said Halep. “I stayed there until the end, even if I was a little bit upset during the match. But it was all positive.”

Truth to be told however, any player holding a set and 5-1 lead would expect to close out the encounter. Svitolina admitted that “nerves” were a factor.

“I started maybe going for too much sometimes and then she was back into the game,” said Svitolina. “A little bit of nerves, of course, played the trick. But, yeah … such a big event. It can happen.

“It’s tennis and everything can turn around in just couple of points.”

After blowing the 5-1 advantage in the second, the momentum seemed to temporarily revert to Svitolina when she saved four set points while serving at 5-6 in the second.

Close tiebreak

She led the tiebreak 4-2, only to deliver two return misses to trail 5-4.

Reversing the score to earn a match point at 6-5, Halep saved it with audacious hitting from the back of the court, especially on a backhand down the line.

Halep suggested in her post-match press conference she didn’t know that was when she was match point down.

She clinched the set when her forehand rattled the top of the tape and dropped over.

An out of sorts Svitolina lost the decider in 23 minutes and Halep set up a clash with second-seed Karolina Pliskova, a 7-6 (7-3) 6-4 winner over France’s Caroline Garcia.

If Pliskova defeats Halep, she will replace the slumping Angelique Kerber as the world No. 1. Halep will become No. 1 if she wins the title.

“Coming into this tournament, there were a few people who told me, ‘You have to be in the final to be No. 1,’ said Pliskova.

“I was, like, there is no chance I make final here.

“And now it’s close, but it’s close and it’s far, as well, because I’m playing against somebody who I would say is one of the best on clay. It’s not like you’re going to get it for free. She’s playing also for being world No. 1. It’s going to be a huge match.”

Pliskova has never been shy to admit that clay isn’t her favorite surface and she also trails Halep 4-2 in their head-to-head contests.

Thursday’s other women’s semifinal sees 2015 French Open semifinalist Timea Bacsinszky play Wimbledon junior winner Jelena Ostapenko. Both will be celebrating birthdays.