The top seed at this years Aegon Classic in Birmingham, Simona Halep was beaten in three tight sets by France’s Kristina Mladenovic who is proving she has more than enough game on grass to beat the best.
Mladenovic won their only previous meeting, coming at the end of 2014 in Paris on the hard-courts where she won 7-6 6-4, however it was Halep who started the match the better of the two women. The world #3 came out of the blocks firing, breaking her opponent in only the third game to lead 3-1. With Halep so solid on serve the Romanian found herself with a chance for a double break at 4-2 up, although Mladenovic managed to save one of the break point chances the Romanian was too good, breaking for a second time to lead 5-2, eventually holding serve to take the first set comfortably 6-2 in just short of 30 minutes.
Mladenovic clearly had too much respect for her higher ranked opponent, however a swift talk from her brother Luka at the changeover proved pivotal as the Frenchwoman started the second set a completely different woman, jumping out to an early 3-0 lead. Despite having her serve broken twice in the first set Mladenovic clearly started the second set with an added intensity, this time bullying the top seed. With the pressure was well and truly off the shoulders of the Frenchwoman, who was striking the ball beautifully, she pounced again, breaking Halep for the second time. With Halep serving to stay in the set at 0-5 she was clearly feeling the pressure, the top seed threw in 3 double faults gifting the Frenchwoman a second break of serve and the set- taking it 6-0.
After a much improved level from Mladenovic and a clear dip in form from Halep the start of the third set would be crucial for both women. Halep dropped her first serve level from 82 percent in the first set to just 38 percent in the second, whereas Mladenovic improved her 62 percent of service points won in the first set to a staggering 91 percent in the second. It was Halep’s second serve that dropped to a dramatic 25 percent, combined with her 5 double faults, it was that second serve which proved to be the real damage, and cost her a bagel set.
Despite losing the second set 6-0 Halep upped her game and with both woman finally starting to play their best tennis throughout the third set it was a much tighter affair as both Halep and Mladenovic held their nerve, neither player able to break serve in the early stages. With the match on serve at 4-3 it was the underdog who struck first in the third set, breaking Halep easily to serve out a second win against the Romanian. Halep was not to be beaten easily, taking advantage of her opponents clear nervousness; breaking straight back to level the match at 5-5, a tiebreak looked inevitable.
With both players holding their serves a tiebreak was the most fitting way to end such a topsy-turvy match. Going into the tiebreak the top seed, with more experience, who broke her opponent to get back into the match; it was Halep looked to be the stronger of the two women. Despite her inexperience at this level it was Mladenovic who struck first taking an early 2-1 lead. The lead for Mladenovic didn’t last, Halep broke straight back and found herself up 4-3. With both players looking edgy the match could have been decided by a coin toss. Despite squandering her many chances throughout the third set the Frenchwoman stepped up to win the last remaining points of her opponents serve, taking the tiebreak 7-4 winning the match 2-6 6-0 7-6(4)
Mladenovic was delighted in her performance stating it was a big win; “It was an amazing match and a big win for me today,” Humble in her victory Mladenovic said; “I don’t know if it’s the best one, I’ve had a few matches where I’ve beaten Top 10 players but it’s an amazing feeling to beat Simona in this way because she’s such a good player.”
Mladenovic will next play the conqueror of #3 seed Carla Suarez-Navarro who was upset in the first match of the day by Karolina Plisokova of the Czech Republic, despite losing to Suarez Navarro two times earlier in the year.
The #3 seeded Spaniard had looked very convincing in her previous matches, however her unease on the grass was telling today as her hard-hitting opponent blew her off the court in straight sets, 6-2, 6-2. Unseeded Pliskova managed to break Suarez-Navarro 3 times throughout the short match and never really looked in trouble on serve throughout.
Now into the semi-finals in Birmingham for the first time, Pliskova will fancy her chances against Mladenovic who is also playing in the Birmingham semi-finals for the first time.
After her triumphant win Pliskova was delighted in her performance; “I was feeling really great today, I’ve already won two matches so I’m feeling really confident on grass. This was my best match here and I’m just really happy that my game is improving”.
With both Mladenovic and Pliskova taking out the two remaining highest seeds in the draw both players are emerging as dark-horses in the competition and either one could find themselves in the final on Sunday.