The simple fact that Victoria Azarenka and Simona Halep will play on Friday at Wimbledon would seem to make their match appointment viewing regardless of circumstance… and it does.
Yet, appreciating the nature of this moment goes beyond the reality that these are major champions and big-name players on the WTA Tour. This matchup is fascinating not just on its own terms, but because of the backstory attached to the previous two meetings between these players, who have not met very often in their careers.
Friday’s meeting will mark just the fifth main-tour meeting between Azarenka and Halep, and just their third since 2012. The 2015 and 2017 meetings between the two players provide a very small sample size, but those results contain bitter herbs for both players: for Azarenka because she lost, for Halep because the wins in those matches did not lead to bigger prizes.
In the 2015 U.S. Open, the winner of an Azarenka-Halep quarterfinal was going to play Flavia Pennetta in the semifinals. Pennetta, a player who had done really well at Indian Wells in her career and was very comfortable on hardcourts, was certainly not a pushover. Yet, compared to other top players on tour, facing Pennetta in a semifinal would be regarded as a generally favorable draw and a chance to make a major final.
Halep, who had been scuffling earlier in the tournament, elevated her level of play in the quarters. Azarenka, who has always done better on hardcourts than any other surface, was denied in her bid to make her first major semifinal since the 2013 U.S. Open.
She hasn’t made a major semifinal in the past four years.
Halep stormed into the semis but then played a shockingly poor match against Pennetta. An Azarenka victory was a momentary thrill which did not endure very long.
This basic dynamic repeated itself at Wimbledon two years later, with minor changes to the particular details involved.
Azarenka and Halep met in the fourth round at the All England Club in 2017. Azarenka had not reached a major quarterfinal since the 2016 Australian Open. This was her chance to end that drought and announce herself as a title contender once again.
The winner of this match was going to play Jo Konta in the quarterfinals. To be sure, Konta had an excellent 2017 and certainly did not rate as an easy player to face at that tournament, especially not Wimbledon. Yet, compared to other players who were more accustomed to the Wimbledon spotlight or the end stages of majors (or both), Konta was not the worst possible opponent one could hope to meet in a major quarterfinal. Azarenka and Halep both had a great shot at meeting 37-year-old Venus Williams in the semifinals.
Once again, Halep won to boost her hopes of a breakthrough and dash Azarenka’s dreams.
Once again, Halep — after winning — could not back up the result in the following round. Konta won, as Halep was distracted by a yelling British fan on match point.
Two years later, the pattern continues: Azarenka and Halep meet in an odd year at a major. The winner doesn’t have an easy draw, but the draw is certainly a lot more manageable than other scenarios one could imagine.
Most of the elites are in the top half. In this bottom quarter of the draw, Madison Keys is the most imposing opponent either Halep or Azarenka could face before the semifinals… and Keys, formidable though she is, has never made the semifinals of Wimbledon.
This match on Friday is therefore accompanied by three basic yet potent questions:
- Will the winner make a big run this time?
- Will Azarenka turn the tables on Halep this time?
- Will Azarenka — so often stuck in the early rounds of majors due to ferociously rough draws — make her big escape and collect the huge points bounce at Wimbledon which will make future major-tournament draws more workable for her?
Azarenka-Halep: The match is interesting solely on the basis of the players involved, but their backstory at major tournaments in recent years makes the moment exponentially more fascinating.