The Mutua Madrid Open this year saw the exodus of fifteen of its sixteen seeds before the quarterfinal stage. The only surviving seed, Simona Halep, the 2014 Madrid finalist was rather routine in all her matches thus far in the Spanish capital and did not disappoint, surviving the upset train to make her second final here.
Her opponent across the net will be none other than dangerous Slovak Dominika Cibulkova who by virtue of making the championship round in Madrid, has achieved her best result in a Premier Mandatory tournament. Her best previous result at this level came when she made the semifinals of Miami in 2014.
The Romanian number one Halep has come a long way since making the final two years ago. She went on to achieve her career high ranking of world number two in August that same year and also won a further four titles through 2014 and 2015. This season has been up-and-down for her and she will be looking for a good ending in Madrid by winning the title to end her early 2016 misery.
Through the early rounds leading up to the last eight, Halep did not drop more than five games in her wins over Misaki Doi, Karin Knapp and 10th seed Timea Bacsinszky. She then survived the biggest test of her campaign here in the quarterfinals against compatriot Irina-Camelia Begu, needing three sets to outlast her fellow Romanian. In the semifinals, she flew past Samantha Stosur in 50 minutes to book her place in her second Madrid final.
When the draw came out last week, Cibulkova was handed the toughest opening round opponent of all in top seed Agnieszka Radwanska. The Slovak who came close to beating the world number two in Indian Wells two months ago was impressive in her three-set demolition of the Pole. After getting bagelled by Caroline Garcia in the opening set in round two, she refocused and gathered her rhythm enough to see off the Frenchwoman in a tight third set.
The Slovak never looked back as she went on to score wins under Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Sorana Cirstea and surprise package Louisa Chirico to earn her spot in the final, she came back from a set down in the former two. Cibulkova may be ranked 38th but do not let her ranking fool you. A former Australian Open finalist, she is working her way up the rankings after having had to sit out the middle of last year to go through an Achilles surgery.
Quite surprisingly, Cibulkova has a convincing lead in the head-to-head, winning three out of their four encounters. However, the first two of those wins in s-Hertogenbosch (2012) and Indian Wells (2013) came before Halep's ascent. In their last meeting at the 2014 Australian Open (where Cibulkova soared to the final), she demolished Halep in a lopsided affair with the loss of just three games. The Romanian's sole win came on clay in Brussels in 2012, their only clash on the dirt where she was the eventual runner-up.
Halep is definitely the favourite in this match and all hopes will be on her to become the first Romanian to lift the trophy. Ion Tiriac, a retired tennis player from Romania currently owns the tournament and has the trophy named after him. Therefore, Halep will definitely be chasing history in the final. She will also seek to end a 14-month title drought and capture her first title on clay since Bucharest in 2014.
Eyes will be on Cibulkova as well to see how she deals with the atmosphere. Despite being the underdog, Cibulkova has been known to give her opponents trouble and thus, making them work hard for the win. Its a third career final on clay for the Slovak with the last one coming in 2012 in Barcelona where she lost to Sara Errani.
In order for Halep to beat an in-form and determined Cibulkova, the Romanian cannot afford to make unnecessary erros and will need to capitalise on her serve like how she did against Stosur in the previous round. Despite having failed to live up to the pressure in a few instances where she was expected to win (quarterfinal loss at the 2015 Australian Open and semifinal loss at the 2015 US Open) in the past, the Romanian will not want waste this opportunity and go one round better than 2014. Cibulkova will put up a feisty and stern opposition but if Halep can repeat her semifinal and early round performances, the Romanian could find herself finally lay her hands on the biggest clay-court title of her career.
Prediction: Simona Halep in three sets