Order of play, the case for the semifinalists and more

The final weekend of the Western & Southern Open is here. Four players remain in the semifinals of the last big push before the start of the US Open. 

On Saturday, World No.1 Ashleigh Barty will take on Angelique Kerber, while No.5 seed Karolina Pliskova faces off against wildcard Jil Teichmann.

How will these matches play out? Here’s an inside look at the keys for each player:

No.1 Ashleigh Barty vs. Angelique Kerber

Key for Barty: Build on momentum

The Western & Southern Open is beginning to look a lot like South West 19 for Barty. A month ago at Wimbledon, she defeated Barbora Krejcikova in the fourth round, Kerber in the semifinals and Karolina Pliskova in the final to win her second major title. This week in Cincinnati, the No.1 seed has repeated her win over Krejcikova in the quarterfinals and is set for a semifinal reprise against Kerber — with Pliskova the highest seed remaining in the bottom half of the draw.

But there aren’t too many bad draws for Barty in any case, these days. The numbers that back this up keep rising. She’s extended her record against Top 20 players in 2021 to 14-1, and against Top 10 players to 7-1. She’s equalled Krejcikova with a tour-leading 38 WTA main-draw wins.

The manner of Barty’s wins also underlines why she’s so far ahead of the field. Her first match of a new swing has often been a little ragged this year. She struggled against Kristina Kucova in Miami, Carla Suárez Navarro in Wimbledon and Heather Watson this week. But just when she seems vulnerable, the Australian has bounced back to deliver an imperious statement of dominance. Against Victoria Azarenka and Krejcikova in Cincinnati, she seemed to be several steps ahead of two of the tour’s sharpest tacticians at every stage.

Barty reaches 6th SF of 2021 with defeat of Krejcikova: Cincinnati Highlights

2021 Cincinnati

A question mark throughout 2021 has been how Barty will hold up physically and mentally in what is an unusually tough year for a player who normally builds in chunks of time to recharge at home. But she’s even taken that in stride, and this week talked about how she used the Olympic experience as her opportunity to reset.

Match management, schedule management and the opportunity to relive her dream Wimbledon run. It’s all falling into place for Barty again. — Alex Macpherson

Key for Kerber: Stay in the zone

Kerber’s focus was admirable Friday, as No.11 seed Petra Kvitova struggled with an illness before retiring down 4-6, 3-3. Kerber, 33, played her typical low-risk, high-reward game, retrieved brilliantly and hit eight winners. 

Her play during the past few months is reminiscent of her form in 2016. That was the best year of Kerber’s career, when she reached three of the four major finals and won two of them, the Australian Open and the US Open.

That season, her US Open run-up included a semifinals appearance in Montreal, a silver medal in Rio de Janeiro and the final in Cincinnati, where she lost to Karolina Pliskova. Kerber ran the table in New York, beating Pliskova in that final.

This year, she’s channeling that magnificent summer stretch, winning in Bad Homburg, reaching the Wimbledon semifinal and now advancing to the semifinals at the Western & Southern Open. Her obstacle to the final is formidable. Barty appears to be in vintage form the past two matches. In fact, it was Barty who beat Kerber 6-3, 7-6 (3) in the Wimbledon semifinal.

Barty has now won 14 of her past 15 matches and reached three consecutive semifinals. Kerber will need to be more aggressive against Barty, but anything is possible – especially if, in Kerber’s mind, it’s 2016. That was the year she ascended to the No.1 ranking. Barty, then only 20, was at No.313. — Greg Garber

No.5 Karolina Pliskova vs. Jil Teichmann

Key for Pliskova: Don’t panic

After finally breaking her 0-4 duck against Jessica Pegula in the Round of 16, an elated Pliskova joked with the press that she wasn’t scared of anyone anymore. 

“So you’re going to win everything now?” this writer asked. 

“Now, anything is possible I feel like,” Pliskova said, laughing.

There wasn’t much to laugh about in the first four games of her quarterfinal against Paula Badosa. The Spaniard played perfect tennis to build patient points and jump out to a 4-0 lead. It was easy to wonder if Pliskova was feeling the hangover effect of her Pegula win, but the World No.4 never panicked. She pulled in her margins, gradually increased the pressure on Badosa’s service games, and waited for her to come back to earth. Badosa obliged, as fatigue and pain began to set in from her grueling effort in singles and doubles this week, eventually retired with a right shoulder injury as Pliskova led 7-5, 2-0.

The retirement put Pliskova into her second straight WTA 1000 semifinal and continues the Czech’s recent resurgence. While it’s easy to crack jokes about the significance of the Pegula win – Pliskova’s husband tweeted “The curse is broken!” – the reality is that Pliskova has been playing smarter, more patient tennis over the last two weeks because her confidence is back where it needed to be. A run to the Wimbledon final, where she took the World No.1 to three sets, will re-install your self-belief, and self-belief is precisely what Pliskova was searching for in the first half of the season. 

To beat Pegula in straight sets, Pliskova came back from 1-4 down in the first set and 0-5 down in the second set. Against Badosa, she won a set 7-5 after trailing 0-4. Pliskova hasn’t panicked at all this week. Now is no the time to start. 

Pliskova has never faced Teichmann, whose variety, strong serve, and lefty craft have left Naomi Osaka and Belinda Bencic befuddled this week. Pliskova will once again need to keep her head and quickly solve the tactical problems the Swiss presents. Teichmann is a good athlete, with great court coverage, who can both take control of points and counter-punch when needed. The Czech needs cheap points off her serve and rally-tolerance to build points and open space to get through Teichmann. — Courtney Nguyen

Key for Teichmann: Trust her variety

After her solid start to the season was stunted by injuries, Jil Teichmann is mixing it up to get back on track.

“I move very good, I change up everything I can – directions, height, everything – and I think she didn’t really feel very comfortable about it,” Teichmann said on court following her stunning upset of World No.2 Naomi Osaka in the Western & Southern Open round of 16.

That assortment of court craft aside, Teichmann also can slam winners at will, for an extra level of variation. Against hardcourt expert Osaka, who has won four Grand Slam titles on the surface, Teichmann hit more aces (8 to 6) and winners overall (21 to 17).

And after she fell behind 0-40 in the very first game of her quarterfinal match against her Olympic-champion countrywoman Belinda Bencic, Teichmann’s next six serves brilliantly went unreturned. She went mostly untested on delivery from there.

Teichmann’s two WTA singles titles have come on clay (Prague and Palermo in 2019), but her hardcourt results have recently taken center stage. She reached her first hardcourt final at Lexington last year, then made the quarterfinals or better at three consecutive hardcourt tournaments earlier this season before suffering left leg injuries which hampered her progress.

Teichmann has all the tools at her disposal to stymie her big-hitting semifinal opponent Pliskova, with variety of pace as well as variety of shot. If she continues to change things up, including using pure power when she gets her chances, then she might take a trip to the biggest final of her career. — Jason Juzwiak

Check out the Order of Play here!

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