For many tennis viewers, Simona Halep is almost as famous for her unique coach-student bond with Darren Cahill as she is for her consistent play from the baseline. Yet, on Saturday afternoon, when she had every right to rely on him after a challenging two weeks in rain-affected tournaments in Montreal and Cincinnati, Cahill didn’t have to come down to the court once. Halep’s opponent, Aryna Sabalenka, on the other hand, had her coach, Dmitry Tursonov on court with her twice. Sabalenka has emerged as a giant killer on the WTA tour this summer, with wins over Karolina Pliskova, Caroline Garcia, and Madison Keys just in the past week.
Coming into the match, it wouldn’t have been crazy to think that the 20 year old from Belarus had a decent shot against the World No. 1. After all, Halep had to play twice yesterday just to make it into this final, and had endured a similar crucible last week, as rain compressed the Montreal tournament schedule as well. And, there have been occasions where Halep has called Cahill onto the court in the last couple of weeks where she looks completely “over it.”
Yet today’s match brought out a different Halep and a different Sabalenka than anticipated. Sabalenka, looking so dominant against Madison Keys last night, seemed to be spraying more shots — or, it could easily be that the steadiness of Halep just provided the conditions where Sabalenka was going for more, with less success. And Halep, often weary during this stretch, was dialed in.
It’s been an interesting transition for Halep after Roland Garros. After so many years as the challenger, she is now firmly ensconced as the World No. 1 and a reigning Grand Slam champion, and she is beginning to walk with the swagger of a champion. So, even exhausted and facing a player with a hot hand, Halep simply played her game — returning her opponent’s fire and forcing the error. That isn’t to say that Halep can’t be overpowered — but it requires a lot more than what Sabalenka was able to bring to the court today. And I wouldn’t bet against Halep to complete the summer hardcourt double on Sunday — the only question that remains is, will she be able to do it in New York?