It’s not been a bad start to 2015 for Simona Halep.
She opened the year with a victory as the no. 1 seed in Shenzhen, dropping her only set of the tournament in the first round, before progressing with 10 sets in a row to be crowned champion. Halep followed that up by equaling her 2014 appearance at the Australian Open, reaching the quarter-final without dropping a set before being knocked out by an in-form Makarova 6-4 6-0. Her performance in the second set of that encounter was lamentable, and Halep has since admitted she didn’t fully fight for the match, but a QF stretch is by no means a disaster.
In Australia, Halep won matches despite looking rusty. In Dubai, that rust would slowly fall away.
Daniela Hantuchova, exhausted from her victorious efforts in- and long journey from Pattaya City, could offer little resistance on tired legs in the first round. Halep was fortunate in that respect, with Hantuchova determined to make big steps in 2015 and looking in strong form. The Romanian would come through that match 6-2 6-0, and would back it up with a straight forward win over Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova 6-4 6-3 in round 2.
The quarter-final stage would not be so simple. Again, Halep found herself facing the ever-dangerous Ekaterina Makarova in a match that would really test the form of the world no. 4. At first, her revenge looked like it would come with relative ease. Halep was able to win the first set 6-3, as Makarova struggled to break through the consistency of her opponent. In the second set though, the Russian would discover her best tennis, while Halep would loosen her grip. As Makarova took the set 6-1, Halep seemed unable to find the kind of form that so excited the world of tennis in 2014. She looked uncertain, uneven, unsure of what path to take.
The third set was a slug. Both players had flashes of inspiration, both had long periods where they couldn’t find the court. Halep served for the match at 5-3, but would eventually have to wait much longer to take the match as her nerves caused her to falter. She wasn’t at her best, but victory eventually came, advancing to the semi-final with a score of 6-3 1-6 7-5.
Makarova had been Halep’s first top 10 opponent of 2015, and the semi-final would see her face another. You need only to beat the player across the net, and in this match the player across the net was Caroline Wozniacki. The Dane had struggles with illness this week, slowing her down considerably but not stopping her progression, and she certainly isn’t a player you want to blink against. Blink, however, Halep did. The first set went the way of Wozniacki, 6-2.
From the first set on, Halep finally looked like the player we expect her to be. Wozniacki completely lost her game, but Halep took advantage with relish. Her victory was a decisive 2-6 6-1 6-1, her ground strokes pulling Wozniacki outside of the court so often that the Dane was unable to ever rediscover a rhythm.
In Saturday’s final, Halep would seek to equal the best tournament victory of her career against neat-and-tidy powerhouse Karolina Pliskova.
The world no. 18 started the match perfectly, looking almost impenetrable with a first service percentage that would eventually read 76% at the conclusion of the encounter, but lingered more around 80-95% for the majority of the match. Halep’s return efforts were flawless though, letting very few of the powerful serves get past her, and eventually she would be rewarded for successfully applying pressure when Pliskova showed signs of nerves and weariness at 3-3 in the first set. The break that followed was all that was needed, as Halep took the set 6-4.
The second set was not so straightforward. Pliskova got her first break of the match early in the set, leading at 2-0, before being immediately broken back. What would follow was a tough battle between two players who know how to hit winners, but who were obviously awed by the sight of the finish line. Halep found ways to hit double faults when she could least afford it, letting Pliskova back into the game on numerous occasions, and breaks of serve were rampant. At 5-4, Halep would attempt to serve for the match, but the Czech fought off championship points with courageous groundstrokes deep into the court.
A tie break was needed to decide the set, and it was Halep who showed the sturdier character in the end, winning 6-4 7-6.
Even in this final battle, Halep did not play her best tennis. Indeed, throughout the tournament, Halep did not look like the same player who took on Maria Sharapova in the final of Roland Garros, or who defeated Serena Williams in the round robin stages of the WTA Finals. But the point is this: champions are not made from those who play perfect tennis every week.
Champions are made from those who struggle, but win anyway.
2015 has not been an easy ride for Simona Halep thus far, but despite that she has two championship wins and a Grand Slam quarter-final to her name. On Monday, she will return to the no. 3 ranking at which she began the year.
Keep an eye on Halep in coming weeks – as her confidence grows, surely her best is yet to come.
Note: I initially stated that Wozniacki was Halep’s first top ten opponent of 2015, which of course was not correct, as Makarova is ranked no.9 at time of publication.