Simona Halep came into the Western and Southern Open after a long title run in Montreal just wanting to win a few matches. She has done that and then some, advancing to her second final in as many weeks and second straight final in Cincinnati with a straight-sets win over Aryna Sabalenka.
Halep’s strong return game proved too much for the 20-year-old Belarusian, who was ground into submission by the world number one. Halep grabbed an early break in the first set and rode it but had to fight in the second as Sabalenka used her big hitting to stay in the match. In the end, the 20-year-old could not keep it together under pressure, cracking in the final game to send Halep into the final with a 6-3, 6-4 victory.
Halep grabs early lead
Right from the start, the matchup between Sabalenka’s massive shots versus Halep’s impenetrable defense was clear. At 1-all, 15-all on the Belarussian’s serve, the world number one was scrambling all over the baseline, kept the point alive by defending a few overheads before drawing an error to win the epic rally. That would be pivotal as, later in the game, Sabalenka sent a forehand wide to go down break point and then sent a forehand long to give Halep the lead.
The Belarusian struck right back, winning a long rally of her own to take a 15-40 lead on the top seed’s serve in the next game. Halep would send a swinging volley into the net to level at 2-all. But there are very few players who break serve with the regularity of the world number one. In the very next game, Sabalenka again cracked under the immense pressure from Halep, sending a backhand long at 30-all and then a forehand wide to give the Romanian the lead once again.
This time, Halep hung on and consolidated her break. The pair remained on serve until Sabalenka served to stay alive at 3-5. After going down 15-30, she struck back-to-back double faults to hand the set to the world number one.
Sabalenka cracks late
The momentum appeared to be building for the world number one at the start of the second set. In Sabalenka’s first service game, Halep took a love-30 lead, but the 20-year-old won four straight points to hold. The next time around, some errors put Sabalenka in another love-30 hole and this time, despite tying it up at 30-all, sent a forehand into the net to give Halep a break point. She would then net a backhand passing shot to surrender the early break.
Just like the opening set, the Belarusian responded immediately. In a game eerily similar to when Sabalenka broke in the first set, Halep went down love-30 before the 20-year-old hit a forehand winner to go up 15-40. The world number one drew errors on both break points but a swinging volley winner from Sabalenka gave her a third. Halep netted a backhand to give the break back.
At 4-all, Sabalenka had a chance to extend the match when she again took a love-30 lead on Halep’s serve and had double break point at 15-40. But the Belarusian blinked, sending nearly identical backhands wide. At deuce, she went for another such backhand and this time found her target, finding the line for a winner. But the world number one holds that top spot for a reason. Sabalenka would net a backhand to send the game back to deuce before consecutive points of outstanding defense allowed the top seed to hold.
Mentally, that missed opportunity may have taken a toll on Sabalenka, who opened her next service game trying to stay in the match at 4-5 by going down love-30. She would win three straight points and appeared to paint the line with a backhand winner to hold, only for the line judge to make a late out call and hawkeye showed the ball was barely out.
Halep would reach match point after Sabalenka missed a backhand wide but the Belarusian saved it with an ace. Some great defence from the world number one on the ensuing deuce drew a missed smash from Sabalenka to set up a second match point and this time, Halep charged into the net a fired a deep volley that the 20-year-old could only stab long.
By the numbers
This match was textbook offense vs defense. Sabalenka had five times as many winners as Halep, 30 to six, but also had more than twice as many unforced errors with 36 to the top seed’s 15.
Despite the Belarusian’s massive serve, Halep managed to put 81 percent of them in play and won 56 percent of her opponent’s second serve points. The top seed was also ruthless on break points, converting five of six while saving five of seven against her own serve.