In a battle royal, both physical and mental, Simona Halep edged the last 2 points to defeat Elena Rybakina in the Dubai Duty Free final on Saturday, 3-6 6-3 7-6(5), capturing her first trophy of the year and her 20th career title.
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... I've done a lot of results, many results these 6, 7 years. I'm staying here in the top 5, top 10, which is not easy. I'm proud of my job. Also this tournament gives me confidence that I'm still there. Simona Halep
It was a week of triumph for the Romanian World No 2, who had saved a match point in her opening match against Ons Jabeur, fought back from a set down to defeat Aryna Sabalenka and then produced a near flawless performance against Jennifer Brady in the semi-finals, committing just 8 unforced errors, before bringing her week to a dramatic conclusion.
“It feels great that I could win it,” Halep said, during her post-match press conference. “Actually, it was amazing.
“[Rybakina] fought till the end. She didn’t give up any balls. It was really tough mentally. The pressure was very high. But I want it badly, so that’s why I fought till the end.
“Yeah, I think these matches, sometimes it’s better if we finish like equal because I feel in a way sorry for her because she’s young and she wanted it so much.”
Rybakina, making her debut in Dubai, began the celebration of her arrival into the world’s top 20 this week by defeating recently crowned Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, and then followed that up by dismissing 2nd seed Karolina Pliskova, Katerina Siniakova and 8th seed Petra Martic.
She gave everything she had in what was a magnificent and thrilling final, exuding her effortless power and a calmness that belies her 20 years, often forcing the reigning Wimbledon champion, whose defensive skills are legendary, onto the back foot.
Halep, who has added a new-found aggression to her game, needed every bit of her famed stubbornness to stay afloat, and when, at 5-5 in the 3rd, Rybakina smacked a brilliant crosscourt forehand that would have been a winner against most, the Romanian responded by stabbing a down-the-line forehand winner that paved the way for the all-important break.
She failed to serve it out in the next game, though, getting broken through a combination of her own nerves and Rybakina’s nothing-to-lose abandon.
When the Kazakh went a mini-break up at 4-3 in the tiebreak with a thunderous return winner, it looked like Halep was going down, but she turned up the offence, taking the ball on the rise and moving Rybakina from side-to-side before breaking open with a blazing down-the-line forehand.
Rybakina could only hit a short backhand in response, and Halep stepped in to crush a clean inside-out forehand winner.
The mini-break retrieved, she was never in any real danger of losing the match again, and promptly converted her first match point at 6-5 in the breaker.
Halep has been struggling in non-Slam events for a while, and Wimbledon 2019 aside, Dubai is her first title since August 2018.
That it came after such a titanic effort against the type of player that has previously been her Achilles’ heel, had to feel cathartic.
Halep, who also hoisted the Dubai trophy back in 2015, had stormed back from a set down, then a break down at 3-1 in the final set to clinch her victory after nearly 2-and-a-half hours of enthralling play by both finalists.
“It’s very special to be in 2020, 20th anniversary of this tournament, 20th title,” an elated Halep stated. “It’s pretty special. I just want to enjoy it. It’s very, very beautiful.”
Her vanquished opponent looks like she was born for the big stage and has already reached 4 finals this year, winning the title in Hobart with her powerful-but-stable game.
Rybakina has a great first serve, an explosive ground game, and makes very few errors, hitting hard and heavy without a lot of risk.
“She’s strong,” Halep observed about Rybakina after the match. “She has a huge serve. She’s tall. She has power. I think she’s really good to get into the top 10 very soon.
Rybakina is already projected to reach No 17 in the rankings, a rise of 2 spots, and, with some fine-tuning, the youngster has both the game and the temperament to get to the top.
“[Rybakina is] moving well, even if she’s very tall,” Halep added. “Her ball doesn’t jump that much. It’s really tough to find the length of the ball. The shot, cross backhand, is amazing. She can go also down the line.
“I think she’s at the highest confidence level. I think everything she hits, it’s really good now.”
The World No 2, at 28 , feels like a veteran as she approaches her 318th consecutive week in the Top 10, the tenth-longest streak in WTA history.
“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,” added Halep.
With her 20th title, Halep draws level with Victoria Azarenka in 6th place on the list of active title winners, behind Serena and Venus Williams, Kim Clijsters, Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova.
“I’ve done a lot of results, many results these 6, 7 years,” said Halep. “I’m staying here in the top 5, top 10, which is not easy.
“I’m proud of my job. Also this tournament gives me confidence that I’m still there.”
In the doubles, top seeds and defending champions Su-wei Hsieh & Barbora Strycova successfully defended their title with a tense 7-5 3-6 [10-5] win over the 5th-seeded pair of Barbora Krejcikova & Saisai Zheng.
Individually ranked 1 and 2 in the world, they are the first team to retain their title since Cara Black & Liezel Huber won in 2007-9.
It was the reigning Wimbledon champion’s 7th title together and their 2nd of the year after winning Brisbane, and they were also runners-up at the 2019 WTA Finals and the 2020 Australian Open.
It was also Su-wei Hsieh’s 3rd consecutive appearance in the Dubai final, after she finished as runner-up in 2018 with Shuai Peng.