DUBAI, February 23, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)
One of the many positive takeaways from the 20th anniversary women’s singles final of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships in the Emirates, battled down to the wire by World No. 2 Simona Halep and rising star Elena Rybakina, is this: the WTA’s depth continues to improve.
In a highly entertaining and competitive final that went the distance and required a third set tie-break to decide its outcome, the former No. 1 and two-time Grand Slam champion Halep – encouraged throughout the two-hour and 27-minute battle by shouts of “SI-MO-NA” coming from her many Romanian fans packing Centre Court at the Aviation Club – eked out a 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5) victory over the 19th-ranked Rybakina, who was playing in her second straight WTA Premier-level final and fourth final of the year. With boundless energy, Halep came from a set down and was behind 3-1 in the final set before storming back. The Dubai triumph provided the Constanta, Romania native with her 20th career WTA title – her first of the year and decade – and first crown since winning Wimbledon last summer.
Halep trailed Rybakina 5-4 in the decisive tiebreaker after sailing a forehand return long for her 23rd unforced error. The Moscow-born Kazakh was two points from winning her third career title and second of the young season. However, Halep would not lose any further points during the title match. Instead, she leveled the tie-break when Rybakina hit a service return wide off her forehand. Then, Halep gained match point by winning a replay challenge to go ahead 6-5. Finally, on Rybakina’s serve, the 20-year-old who couldn’t lose this week suddenly sent a backhand long that capped an unlucky (for her) 13-shot rally, and the match was over.
— Dubai Tennis Champs (@DDFTennis) February 22, 2020
No margin for error
Halep had survived the roller coaster-like final in which she lost the opening set and rallied in the second to send the match to a decider. She collapsed to the ground and lay on her back just long enough to pump her fists in celebration of what she had achieved. Then, she picked herself up and raced to the net to shake hands with a disappointed Rybakina. Only five points separated the two finalists (115 for Halep, 110 for Rybakina). It was that close.
“It feels great that I could win it,” Halep said during her post-match press conference that followed her victory and trophy ceremony. “Actually, it was amazing. (Rybakina) fought until the end. She didn’t give up any balls. It was really tough mentally. The pressure was very high. But I wanted it badly. So, that’s why I fought until the end.”
Halep and Rybakina proved there was no margin for error and neither deserved to lose this final. After Ons Jabeur took Halep to the brink – it took her four match points to close out the rising Tunisian star after saving a match point – Halep strung together impressive wins over Aryna Sabalenka and Jennifer Brady to arrive at Saturday evening’s title match. Rybakina, the WTA Tour-leader in wins (19) and service aces (134) had previously knocked off Australian Open winner Sofia Kenin, Katerina Siniakova, Karolina Pliskova and Petra Martic – an impressive group which included three Top 20 foes.
— WTA (@WTA) February 22, 2020
A tremendous run, a just reward
So, both finalists – each in their own way – enjoyed a tremendous run to the title match, and Halep’s 20th title triumph now ties her for sixth place with Victoria Azarenka on the list of active title winners, behind Serena Williams (73), Venus Williams (49), Kim Clijsters (41), Maria Sharapova (36) and Petra Kvitova (27).
Later, Halep gave props to Rybakina during her press conference following her title victory: “She’s young. She doesn’t feel the fear. She doesn’t think too much about the result. What comes now is a bonus, in my opinion, for her.
“She’s strong. She has a huge serve. She’s tall. She has power. I think she’s really good to get into Top 10 very soon.”
Soon, after Halep won match point, she admitted in an on-court interview, “Sometimes, it was really hard to return, but I fought hard.” Earlier in the day, Halep had announced that she had withdrawn from the WTA Premier 5 event in Doha, Qatar, where she was drawn as the second seed. So, perhaps, it allowed Halep to go out and compete with a clear head and mind and go for it all against Rybakina.
“I really wanted this tournament because I enjoying playing here. I gave it everything I had. Now, actually, I’m really dead,” she said (smiling).
Looking back, still elated over what she accomplished during her week’s stay in Dubai, a thrilled Halep said, “It’s very special to be in 2020, 20th anniversary of this tournament, 20th title. It’s pretty special. I just want to enjoy it. It’s very, very beautiful.”
What they’re saying
From Darren Cahill, Simona Halep’s coach:
Well done Simo. An amazing fighting performance all week against really tough opponents. Your strength & character shining through. A wonderful coaching week by Arti & Cosmin. Great job guys 👏 @Simona_Halep 🏆 #WTA20 #TeamSimo 🇷🇴 pic.twitter.com/oaXzY3sYmW
— Darren Cahill (@darren_cahill) February 23, 2020
What they’re tweeting
From Christopher Clarey, New York Times tennis correspondent:
Emphatic start to the season for Halep. She looked so good in Australia before Muguruza stopped her. Bigger things ahead for her and Rybakina. https://t.co/XGzxI5Iqqi
— Christopher Clarey (@christophclarey) February 22, 2020