Halep Wins Gigantic Tussle Over Rybakina In Dubai

DUBAI, February 22, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

World No. 2 Simona Halep gave everything she had. So did her young opponent, Elena Rybakina. Both proved that in order to win, you have to fight for every ball. In a Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships women’s singles final that will be long remembered – arguably the best in the tournament’s 20-year history – Halep survived. She found all the right answers at the end of a two-hour and 27-minute gigantic tussle Saturday night in the Emirates.

The top-seeded Halep of Romania won her 20th WTA career singles title on Centre Court at the Aviation Club – and first since Wimbledon last summer – with her 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5) victory over the unseeded and 19th-ranked Rybakina from Kazakhstan. It was a title match that was high on energy – there were countless rallies that seemed to stretch both of the players to their limits – and it was full of nerveless ball striking. Simply, there was little margin for error.

“Great emotions to be honest,” Halep said post-match during her on-court interview, which summed up her feelings of winning her second Dubai crown and first since 2015. The victory improved her win-loss record in the Emirates to 12-4. “It’s been a great match, so I really want to congratulate my opponent. Elena played really, really well. She’s so young, so she has many years to play at the highest level. I wish her good luck and well done for this beautiful tournament that she played.”

Only five points separated Halep and Rybakina

Halep hit 28 winners and 23 unforced errors and converted four of her 11 break-point opportunities in her second career meeting against Rybakina. There were only five points that separated the former No. 1 and two-time Grand Slam champion from Rybakina (115-110), who finished with 30 winners but committed 25 unforced errors. She managed just two aces against five double faults while breaking Halep’s serve four times in eight tries.

“Sometimes, it was really hard to return, but I fought hard,” said Halep, who announced earlier Saturday that she had withdrawn from next week’s WTA Premier 5 event in Doha, Qatar. “I really wanted this tournament because I enjoy playing here. I gave everything I had. Now, actually, I’m really dead.”

While Halep faced one of the biggest servers on the WTA Tour, she seemed to find all the right answers at the end. Down 5-6 in the third-set tie-break, she rallied to win the final three points of the match, including match point, in which Rybakina capped a 13-shot rally but hit a backhand long that left Halep collapsed on her back on the ground pumping her fists in a moment of celebration that the television cameras captured for everyone to see, both inside the Centre Court stadium and around the world.

A memorable week for both players

It seemed a fitting conclusion for Halep, who reached the Australian Open in her last tournament and has been ranked inside the WTA Top 10 for 317 consecutive weeks, which is the 10th-longest streak in WTA history. Her Dubai week began with Halep saving a match point against Ons Jabeur in her first match on Wednesday, fighting back from a set down to beat No. 7 seed Aryna Sabalenka in the quarterfinals, then playing flawless in beating Jennifer Brady in the semifinals. When she beat Rybakina, it brought her week to a fitting, dramatic conclusion.

When Halep was asked what pushed her through the final moments of the championship match, she didn’t hesitate when giving her answer. “Well, it was a little bit tough to finish at 6-5, actually,” she said. “I had to serve, but, yeah, I was a little bit nervous, maybe. You know, at this level, it’s tough to think you are a break down or a break up. You just have to fight for every ball, which I did. I’m really proud of this week. I gave my best.“

Later, during the trophy ceremony, the 28-year-old Halep gave props to Rybakina, who is eight years her junior: “I’m feeling that I’m getting older and playing against her today gave me a little bit of power that I can still win these matches. But she has a bright future ahead, so I wish her good luck – and be confident because you’re doing great.”

As for Rybakina, who was playing in her fourth 2020 final overall and second straight WTA Premier-level final, following her run at St. Petersburg last week, she competed at her highest level in another break-out week. Rybakina, who was ranked No. 191 at the end of 2018, will move up to No. 17 in next week’s WTA rankings thanks to her three Top 20 wins in Dubai – against Australian Open champion and No. 5 seed Sofia Kenin in the first round, World No. 3 Karolina Pliskova in the quarterfinals and eighth seed Petra Martic in the semifinals, which lifted her to a tour-leading 19 victories. Against the World No. 15 Martic, she came from a break down in both sets and saved set points in both sets.

“I played really good,” said Rybakina. “It was actually a close match. I’m a bit upset that it’s again just final. In the beginning of the week, I didn’t even expect that I can be in the final. So, it’s been a great week for me.” 

Rybakina called Halep “a great champion,” who’s fighting until the end. “It was a great match from both of us I think. I’m really proud of myself that I managed to play all these matches and beat such great players. It’s been amazing week here.”

As Halep reminded everyone after winning, “It’s always a wonderful week in Dubai – even if I lost here last year in the quarterfinals. I still have great memories. I’m trying to enjoy myself each time I’m here and to win every match I play.”

Hsieh/Strycova win Dubai doubles, again

No. 1 seeds and defending champions Hsieh Su-Wei of Taiwan and Barbora Strycova from Czech Republic brought a seven-match Dubai winning streak into the doubles final against No. 5 seeds Barbora Krejcikova from Czech Republic and Zheng Saisai of China, who hadn’t played together since 2017 until this week. They had already won a title at Brisbane and reached the final at the Australian Open last month. So, it was no surprise to see them into their third final in their third doubles event of the season.

On Saturday afternoon, the defending champions Hsieh and Strycova, the two top doubles players in the world who hadn’t dropped a set all week, added to their Dubai trophy collection through a mixture of intensity and entertainment. They won 7-5, 3-6, 10-5 over the reunited Krejcikova and Zheng, who were playing in their first final together.

Hsieh and Strycova were ahead a set and up a break at 3-1 in the second when Krejcikova and Zheng stormed back and won five straight games to force a deciding 10-point tie-break. Then, after Krejcikova and Zheng went ahead 3-0 in the tie-break, Hsieh and Strycova strung together eight straight points by controlling the net and took commanding 8-3 lead which they didn’t relinquish. The match ended on consecutive double faults by Zheng.

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