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Simona Halep reaches Wimbledon semifinals with a comfortable win, on the surface

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WIMBLEDON, England—Grass! Grass! Grass!

For some reason, that’s an earworm in my small brain. Puts me in mind of “Gas! Gas! Gas!” Which is the first thing we learned in Chemical Warfare For Dummies, the prep course journalists took before setting out for Iraq in the Second Gulf War. Where Saddam Hussein was alleged to have chemical weapons and prepared to use them. So, at the first scent of a gassy odour, that’s what we were told to yell out loud: “Gas! Gas! Gas! Put on the mask!”

Although, really, you would have been better off just leaning forward and kissing your ass goodbye.

All of which is a long way from the All England Club. But just like there’ll always be an England, there will always be grass at Wimbledon. The tall foreheads who make these decisions have been very explicit about that, as plans are under way for a large expansion of courts out here at SW19.

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And most players are scared silly by the lawn surface, have little aptitude for it and even less comfort.

Mowers are out at dawn to ensure the greensward — 100 per cent perennial rye grass now, a durable turf that can withstand the wear and tear of modern tennis — is kept precisely pristine at eight millimetres, although there’s not much they can do mid-tournament about the brown patches along each baseline, which can be read as an epitaph for the serve-and-volley game.

Serve-and-volley is almost quaint these days. But the main reason players have difficulty at Wimbledon is because balls tend to skid and bounce low on grass. The pace of play quickens because grass is fast. It negates some of the heavy topspin while accentuating slice shots. The trajectory is altered and competitors, coming directly off the clay and hard-court circuits, have little time to adjust for it. There are only a couple of weeks between Roland Garros and Wimbledon and five grass tournaments to choose from as warm-ups.

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Then the grass court season is over — except for the men, who have a grass event in Newport right after Wimbledon.

While the All England Club cleaves to turf, grass has become near-on a novelty. The U.S. Open used to be played on grass, until the mid-1970s. The Australian Open switched over in 1988.

Almost every loser over the past 10 days has commented on the frustrations of grass or being unready for it. World No. 1 Iga Swiatek had her 37-match winning streak halted on the weekend, dumped in straight sets by the grass-savvy Alizé Cornet. “On grass court, everything happens so quickly,’’ the 21-year-old groused afterward. “I can’t use my topspin and put back these balls and just run the point. So, here I didn’t have any idea. I didn’t tank it but I just didn’t know what to do.”

Experience on the surface has been crucial. Simona Halep is experienced. The Romanian veteran stunned Serena Williams to win Wimbledon in 2019. But she hadn’t stepped foot on these courts since; the tournament was cancelled in 2020 because of COVID, then she was forced to withdraw in 2021 with a tear in her left calf. It was a season of severe struggles and disillusion that led Halep to tell her family she might be ready to quit the sport entirely. This Wimbledon has put that thought right out of her head.

The 30-year-old has yet to drop a set, rollicking into the semifinals after disposing of American Amanda Anisimova 6-2, 6-4 on Wednesday in just 63 minutes.

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“I’ve always had a good feeling with grass,” she said. “I feel safe on my feet. This helps me to be able to be move relaxed and feel the game. I really feel the game now.”

She’s also feeling a renewed self-confidence since bringing on as a full-time coach Patrick Mouratoglou, the dashing Frenchman who helped steer Williams to 10 of her 23 Grand Slam titles. The pair uncoupled in April. “We really connected from first minute,” said Halep, who credits Mouratoglou for rekindling her joy and desire in tennis. “He trusted in me that I still can be a good player and I started to believe again that I have a chance.”

Halep has been racing through her matches. The quarterfinal wasn’t much different against a flat Anisimova, normally such a powerful server, flailing to find her rhythm. Not until 5-1 and match point in the second set did the 20-year-old come out of the doldrums, winning three straight games. Halep wasn’t having any part of a Herculean comeback, however. Serving for the match a second time, she rallied from 0-40, winning five points in a row to finish off Anisimova.

“I refused that she’s going to come at 5-all. I pumped myself. I served very well.”

The commanding performance put Halep, seeded 16th into a final-four confrontation Thursday with 17th seed Elena Rybakina, of Kazakhstan, who battled back from a set down to defeat Australian-Croatian Ajla Tomljanovic 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 and advance to her first Slam semifinal. All the top stars bowed out early, which might account for the relatively poor crowds the women are attracting. Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur is the only top-10 player left in the draw.

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“I’ll be playing against a great champion,” Rybakina said of Halep, who also won the French Open in 2018 and has twice reached No. 1.

The 23-year-old Rybakina is Moscow-born but switched her allegiance to Kazakhstan three years ago, long before Russia invaded Ukraine — which spurred one Russian, Natela Dzalamidze, to go Georgia so she could avert the ban against Russians at Wimbledon. Dzalamidze got as far as the second round in doubles before she was sent packing.

Four of Kazakhstan’s top five female players were born in Russia. The Kazakhstan Tennis Federation has thrown a ton of money at players to lure them over. Rybakina says she wasn’t getting enough support, particularly funding, in Russia and the Kazakhs came calling at the right time.

“They believed in me, they made everything possible for me to keep playing. I’m really happy that I’m representing Kazakhstan already for a long time.”

Adding: “I just want the war to end. Peace, yeah.”

A war that feels far away from the emerald lawns of Wimbledon.

Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno

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