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MIAMI (Reuters) - Simona Halep is emerging as one of the few players on Tour capable of putting up a real fight against Serena Williams and the Romanian's performance in Thursday's Miami Open semi-final was another indication of her growing stature in the game.
Halep pushed the 19-times grand slam winner all the way before Williams sealed a 6-2 4-6 7-5 win at Key Biscayne to book her place in Saturday's final against Carla Suarez Navarro.
With world number two Maria Sharapova having a 2-17 record against Williams and without a win over her in more than 10 years, Halep has emerged as the player most likely to give the American a run for her money.
She has certainly won Williams' respect.
"I love watching her play. I'm actually a fan of hers," Williams said after her 10th victory in 10 Miami semi-finals.
"I like her attitude. I like how she gets pumped up. I like how she fights. I like how she plays.
"I think it's fun to watch and different. It's a refreshing type of game."
Halep said before the tournament she could not imagine rising to top spot in the rankings as long as Williams was still playing but also made it clear she did not think the 33-year-old was unbeatable.
Halep was the last player to beat Williams on the tour, in Singapore in October, and there was added anticipation for their meeting on Thursday given that Halep won in Indian Wells earlier this month after Williams pulled out of their scheduled semi-final with a knee injury.
The 23-year-old hopes clashes with Williams will become a regular feature of the tour.
"I think so. I hope so. I think now I know how to play against her and I have now a lot of experience because I had many matches against her," she said.
"Every match with her, I learn so many things from it. So now I learned that I can be close to her and I can be there in the top.
"I was close. I saw that I can win against her. I can play like until the end against her.
"But she was better than me. She is better than me because she's number one in the world and she's Serena," she added.
Halep's intensity and determination was never more evident than when she won the second set, where she seemed totally immersed in the game.
"I didn't realize that the set is over. I don't know why. I didn't play for the score. I played just to try to play my best tennis, to try to be close to her, and just to hit and to fight for every ball.
"It was very, very strange, that moment for me."
Editing by Peter Rutherford