South Florida’s Romanian community did all it could to will third-seeded Simona Halep to the Miami Open final, chanting “Si-Mo-Na!’’ from the rafters of Stadium Court during the women’s semifinal Thursday night. They helped get her to the third set they so craved.
But when it mattered most, in the deciding last games, top-ranked American Serena Williams was too strong and prevailed 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 to advance to Saturday’s final. Williams will be going for her eighth title in Key Biscayne, and her third in a row.
“I barely was able to regroup, was frustrated, really happy to get through that,’’ Williams said. “I never gave up. Wow, I’m in the finals, unbelievable.’’
She will face Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro, who reached her first final at a premier event with a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Andrea Petkovic of Germany. With the win, Suarez Navarro moves into the Top 10 on Monday. She will become the first Spanish woman in the Top 10 since Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in 2001.
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Williams was particularly motivated to beat Halep because the Romanian was the last woman to beat her (6-0, 6-2 at the WTA Finals in November 2014) before Williams embarked on a 19-match win streak.
On the men’s side it seems somehow fitting that as most of the nation gears up for Final Four weekend, a 6-10 American former basketball player with size 15 shoes played his best match of the year on Thursday to advance to the last four of the Miami Open.
Big-serving John Isner, the 22nd seed and lone U.S. man still alive in the tournament, didn’t face a single break point, fired 13 aces and had a 33-5 edge in winners during a 6-4, 6-3 victory over No. 4 seed Kei Nishikori of Japan.
He called it “the best match I’ve played all year, hands down.’’
ESPN commentator Brad Gilbert went a step further: “It’s the best two sets of tennis from start to finish that I’ve ever seen from the big fella.’’
Isner will play top-ranked Novak Djokovic, a four-time champion here, in the semifinals Friday night. Djokovic eliminated David Ferrer 7-5, 7-5 Thursday night.
After going 0-11 against Top 10 players over the past year and a half, Isner beat two over a 48-hour span, which he said gives him a boost of confidence heading into the semis. “Things just snowball for me,’’ he said.
In the Round of 16, he served 25 aces and outlasted No. 5 seed Milos Raonic in a late match that stretched 2 hours 43 minutes and ended close to 1 a.m. Wednesday morning.
Thursday’s match was a breeze, by comparison. It lasted just 70 minutes, and Nishikori, who stands a full foot shorter than Isner, was overpowered from the start. Isner has yet to have his serve broken this tournament.
Heck, things are going so well for Isner these days that he correctly predicted that Kentucky, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Duke would make the college basketball Final Four on his bracket.
“I played extremely well today,” Isner said on court immediately after the match. “I needed to play well in order to beat a player like Kei and that’s what I did. From start to finish, I felt like I was aggressive. I was playing all the right shots and things just went my way today. I’m very, very happy.”
The Greensboro, North Carolina, native said the weather and court conditions were ideal for his game.
“It’s just perfect conditions for me,” Isner said. “I can’t ask for better weather. The ball’s getting up high, so for me, being so tall, it’s great because I can get the ball up high on my opponent. When I’m hitting groundstrokes, the ball is where I want it, above my waist. It’s hot, but not that humid, so it’s not taking a lot out of me. Perfect.’’
Nishikori was gracious in defeat, conceding that it was Isner’s day.
“Serve, I didn’t have a chance,’’ he said. “Also, his forehand, also backhand, he hit some winners from back of the baseline. I think he close his eyes and hitting so many winners. Couldn’t really stop him.’’
Djokovic is expecting “quite a different match’’ against Isner than he had against the 5-9 Ferrer.
“John is probably the best server we have in the game currently,’’ he said.