By Shannon Russell
Garbine Muguruza defeated defending champion Karolina Pliskova in a Western & Southern Open semifinal Saturday afternoon, ensuring a new title winner Sunday and a possible change atop the rankings.
Muguruza, seeded fourth, thrashed the top-seeded Czech player 6-3, 6-2 on Center Court at the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Mason and clinched a place in her first WTA tournament final on American soil.
“Today I think I was very precise with my shots. I also played very well. I don’t know. I wanted just to be more aggressive, you know, trying to take my shots, don’t think a lot about her, because I know she played very aggressive as well,” Muguruza said. “I’m working hard on trying to face these aggressive opponents. So today I felt a little bit better.”
The victory ensured her place in Sunday’s 2 p.m. championship opposite World No. 2 Simona Halep.
In addition to avenging a loss to Pliskova in last year’s W&S Open semifinals, Muguruza denied Pliskova’s bid to win back-to-back titles here for the first time since Serena Williams did it in 2014 and 2015.
How the rankings shake out remains to be seen. Current No. 1 Pliskova can maintain her perch atop the WTA if second-ranked Halep does not claim the W&S Open title. If Halep wins the championship, she’ll usurp No. 1 for the first time in her career.
World No. 6 Muguruza asserted herself from the start Saturday, delivering a nasty backhand that helped her go up a break. Her Czech opponent fumbled through three unforced errors before firing an ace but was unable to salvage the game.
Considering Muguruza’s crispness and efficiency, Pliskova could ill-afford nine early unforced errors and two double-faults. Muguruza surged ahead 5-3 and claimed the first set in 36 minutes.
Pliskova fended off four match points in the second set but Muguruza made good on the fifth to secure the win.
Pliskova said her energy was low due to playing three matches in 24 hours. She had to win a Round of 16 match and a quarterfinal Friday because of Thursday’s rain-abbreviated schedule.
“(I had) some chances I had but didn’t play well, any of them. So just credit to her, but definitely not the best for me,” Pliskova said.
GOING THE DISTANCE: Halep converted five break points en route to a 6-2, 6-1 semifinal victory over wild card Sloane Stephens in an evening semifinal.
The Romanian went up two breaks early in both sets and held on. Stephens twice requested her coach and never found her stride, battling 20 unforced errors throughout.
Halep said her quarterfinal match against Johanna Konta helped prepare her for Saturday.
“I think the match from yesterday gave me a lot of confidence, and since yesterday I started to feel the game, to feel that I can hit the ball. So today was much better. I moved very well today. I just feel good. That’s why maybe I can play. I have no pressure,” Halep said.
With a strong crowd contingent rooting her on, Stephens held serve to start the second set. But she was broken soon after and Halep continued to roll, converting 91 percent of her second serve points and doling out 11 winners.
Halep, who has yet to drop a set in the tournament, improved to 5-2 all-time against the American. Stephens was the first wild card to reach the W&S Open semifinals since Venus Williams did in 2012.
DIMITROV MOVES ON: With a 7-6 (4), 7-6 (10) semifinal win over American John Isner, World No. 11 Grigor Dimitrov solidified a place in his career-first Masters 1000 final.
He’ll play fellow Masters 1000 final newbie Nick Kyrgios at 4 p.m. Sunday. It marks the first W&S Open men’s final since 2006 without at least one Top 10 player.
“It’s a good step,” Dimitrov said of his career milestone. “I have been on the tour for quite some time now, and I appreciate those moments. I’m starting to, I think, to appreciate them even more.”
Securing his first Masters semifinal victory in four career tries was no easy feat. The Bulgarian player gutted out a tough match against Isner, a 2013 W&S Open finalist.
“Today was one of those matches that I really had to just be patient. I think that that was the key. I knew I’m not going to have that many rallies against John. I knew that he’s going to serve big, bold serves,” Dimitrov said. “I just had to be very composed and use every opportunity that I had.”
World No. 19 Isner saved three match points, but Dimitrov capitalized on a fourth opportunity after the American batted a return into the net.
Isner thought the difference in the match was Dimitrov’s decisiveness in the big moments.
“Sometimes you take the court and everything is going well and you're not thinking too much out there and things are free flowing,” Isner said. “At times that was the case out there for me, but at times maybe it wasn't. And I think that cost me a little bit.”
KYRGIOS RESERVES HIS PLACE: It took more than two hours and neither player executed a service break, but Kyrgios outlasted David Ferrer in a 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4) semifinal Saturday night.
World No. 23 Kyrgios bested the 31st-ranked Spaniard by finding separation in the tiebreaks and serving up 14 aces.
To be honest, Kyrgios said, it was a tough match.
“He was a nightmare to play, especially because…I’m a tall guy and he’s not the tallest guys. He hits the ball pretty flat. You know, the whole time there is nothing shoulder height for me to hit. I’m always trying to hit underneath and trying to hit up and over it,” Kyrgios said.
Ferrer, a 2014 W&S Open runner up, mixed in drop shots and long returns but couldn’t break through against his 22-year-old opponent.
“I didn’t have chance in the second tiebreak. I played good, but I need serve. I’m missing all the match. And in important moments with the second serve, he played aggressive. He serve, you know, (more) than 130 miles,” Ferrer said.
Kyrgios polished off the first tiebreaker with a blazing forehand shot in the open court. He accelerated his game in the final points of the second-set tiebreaker, too.
It has been a strong week for the Aussie, who’s in search of his first title this year. If he wins Sunday, he’ll be the lowest-ranked W&S Open champ since No. 49 Tom Gorman in 1975.
DOUBLE TROUBLE: After two hotly contested doubles semifinals, the W&S men’s doubles championship teams are set. Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares will face Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicholas Mahut on Sunday for the title.
Third-seeded Murray and Soares defeated second-seeded Lukasz Kubot and Marcelo Melo 6-4, 7-5 in Saturday’s first semifinal. Fifth-seeded Herbert and Mahut dispatched French Open winners Ryan Harrison and Michael Venus 6-4, 7-6 (9) in the second.
Murray and Soares, the reigning US Open champions, converted two break to upend the recently-crowned Wimbledon champs on Grandstand Court. Herbert and Mahut outlasted their foes on the same court soon after.