The tennis world has understandably recently been focused on the exploits of Japan’s Naomi Osaka. The 21-year-old has, after all, just won the Australian Open and reached the pinnacle of the world rankings. And despite unexpectedly splitting with her coach Sascha Bajin, she looks set to dominate the sport over the coming years. Except that Simona Halep, the woman who Osaka replaced at the top of the rankings tree, appears to have every intention of contesting Osaka’s mastery.
The Romanian has been playing superb tennis all week in Qatar to come through a difficult draw and reach the final, guaranteeing a return to world #2 as a result. After a first-round bye, she began her campaign against Lesia Tsurenko, dismissing the Ukrainian 6-2 6-3 to reach the quarterfinals. There, she came up against ninth seed Julia Goerges, last season a semifinalist at Wimbledon. Goerges played well, but Halep simply would not be denied, battling through to the semifinals a 7-6 7-6 winner.
Awaiting her there was reigning WTA Finals champion and world #7 Elina Svitolina. What followed was a titanic clash. Svitolina had reasons to feel confident coming into the match. She had been in imperious form, brushing aside Jelena Ostapenko and Karolina Muchova to claim her place in the last four. She also owned a 4-2 lead in their head-to-head, having won her last three matches against Halep at a canter, including a 6-0 6-4 demolition in the Italian Open final last year.
However, from the outset in Doha, Halep made it clear that this was not to be another one-sided affair. She seized control of the baseline, forcing Svitolina back, and spread the court superbly to keep her opponent off balance. Svitolina battled as best as she could, and played some good tennis of her own, but was unable to withstand the Halep storm. The top seed broke twice and deservedly took the opener six games to three.
In the second set, however, Svitolina broke through early to bring Halep’s momentum to a crashing halt. And whilst both players raised their level, delivering some stunning winners, it was increasingly Svitolina who was winning the big points. Halep, try as she might, could not engineer a comeback and then, as she served to stay in the set trailing 3-5, Svitolina pounced. Punishing a couple of loose shots from Halep, the Ukrainian broke again to level the match at one-set apiece.
But though the scoreboard was even, there was no doubting who was in the ascendancy. Svitolina was redlining her game and she forced two early break points in the third. Halep saved the first, but was unable to rescue the second as Svitolina struck. Halep, who had been outmanoeuvring Svitolina with ease in the first set, now seemed to be on a string as her opponent flashed winner after winner past her reach.
Svitolina, sensing her advantage, pressed for the killer blow. She put the Halep serve under pressure again up 4-1, three times coming to within one point of going up a double break. But Halep, who had spoken of her frustration at ‘giving up’ against Svitolina in the past, made her stand. Somehow, she was able to fight off Svitolina to hold serve, guiding a forehand volley into the open court to secure the game having drawn Svitolina to the net with a deft drop shot. And in doing so, she turned the match in her favour.
Svitolina, understandably frustrated, allowed her focus to slip and Halep punished her for it. She broke back in the next game as Svitolina sent a backhand wide into the tramlines. Another Svitolina error down break point in the ninth game of the decider, given up in the face of stifling Halep defence, left the Romanian serving for the match having won four games on the bounce. She made no mistake, serving it out to 15 to complete a memorable comeback and book her place in the final.
Elise Mertens will be her opponent there. The Belgian has been in impressive form herself, scoring back-to-back top ten wins in the quarterfinals and semifinals by defeating Kiki Bertens and Angelique Kerber respectively. But Halep will surely approach the match with no fear. She has beaten Mertens comfortably in their two previous meetings, losing just six games across the two matches, albeit on clay, her favourite surface. Nonetheless, she is unquestionably the favourite going into the final.
And should she win it, Halep will have done more than just mark her return to the world’s top two in the best possible fashion. She will also have laid down a clear marker to the rest of the tour of her significant part to play across the rest of the 2019 season, particularly with the European clay court season less than two months away. Whisper it quietly for now, but Simona Halep might just be back and Naomi Osaka’s coronation as the new queen of women’s tennis premature.
Because if Halep continues to play this sort of tennis, it won’t be long before you’re shouting it from the rooftops.
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