Top seed Simona Halep shook off a strong challenge from fellow Romanian and friend, Irina-Camelia Begu, to reach the final of the Prague Open where she will meet the third-seeded Belgium, Elise Mertens, both advancing with straight set wins in their semi-finals.
She was probably a little bit more tired than me in the second set, but I've also had some tough matches at the beginning. I'm happy for her also that she did semi-finals. In the first tournament [back], for me to play the final, it's a nice feeling. Simona Halep
“I didn’t play my best tennis but, also, she was tired, so in my opinion, it was a good match,” Halep said in her on-court interview. “I’m really happy that I could win it.
“It’s always tough to play against her. She’s a great player.”
Halep was broken three times in the first set but managed to win the tiebreak before Begu, who finished her quarter-final match earlier in the day, ran out of steam as the reigning Wimbledon champion won, 7-6(2) 6-3. after an hour and a half.
World No 82 Begu, a former Top 30 player, gave an incredible accounting of herself over the course of the week, having spent over 7 hours on court in her first 3 matches, but eventually succumbed to all the tennis behind her after failing to serve out the first set.
Begu’s quarter-final was suspended on Friday when she was leading Spaniard Sara Sorribes Tormo 6-2, 0-1 and the match went the distance on Saturday with the Romanian winning, 6-2 4-6 6-2, in 2 hours and 40 minutes.
The lower-ranked Romanian was a break ahead three times in the opening set, and twice earned herself the opportunity to win just her second set in seven professional meetings against Halep on serve at 5-4 and 6-5.
Begu never earned a set point opportunity in either game, and prior to the 6-5 game, received a medical timeout to deal with blisters on her racket hand as fatigue started to show with the 29-year-old, which allowed Halep to refocus.
“She was playing really well at that point and she was kind of dominating the match” said Halep. “Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad to play long matches because sometimes you get the rhythm, and sometimes you get tired.”
The set was resolved in the tiebreak in which Halep won the final 6 points, and the frustration of losing the opener began to show on Begu.
Halep’s momentum carried into the early portion of the second set as she broke serve in the opening game, but she needed to overcome Begu’s last stand in the middle of the set.
The 29-year-old won back-to-back games from 3-1 down to level at 3-3, but after failing to covert a game point for a 4-3 lead, lost 11 of the last 12 points to succumb to defeat.
“She was probably a little bit more tired than me in the second set, but I’ve also had some tough matches at the beginning,” Halep said. “I’m happy for her also that she did semi-finals.
“In the first tournament [back], for me to play the final, it’s a nice feeling.”
Earlier in the day, Elise Mertens got the better of a persistent Kristyna Pliskova to win 7-5 7-6(4), after the tall left-handed Czech led 3-0 in the second set breaker before the Belgian took 7 of the next 8 points for the match.
“It was a really close match, just a couple of points of difference,” Mertens said. “We both served well, so it was difficult to break each other, especially when our first serve was in.
“She can hit balls either way, so it was difficult to get the point started.
“In the end, it was just one break difference in the first set and, I think, I managed it well at the end.
“In the second set, we were both winning our serve, and although I made a couple of errors in the tiebreak, I stayed mentally tough.”
Ultimately, it was Mertens’ greater efficiency on the big points that told, as she saved 7 of 8 break points then showed mental fortitude to fight back from 0-3 down in the second-set tiebreak to seal the match.
“The more matches you play, the more confidence you get, the more you know how you’re playing and how you have to play,” she said.
Mertens, the World No 23 held the advantage all the way to 5-4, when she served for the first set, with no hint of a break.
She had ceded only 4 points in her first 3 service games, but 2 errors and one tremendous rally from Pliskova brought 3 break points, 2 of which were missed and, on the 3rd, the Belgian hit long and the set was squared.
Having been rather uneventful previously, the match exploded into life, with Pliskova fighting back brilliantly from 0-40 down to level the game at deuce only to relinquish her serve for a second time before she saved 2 set points in the subsequent game, only to miss a backhand down the line and finally fall behind.
The dominance of serve had passed and break opportunities arrived with greater frequency in the second set.
Pliskova failed to replicate the ruthless aggressive edge that fashioned her chances at the key moments and 5 went begging.
Mertens, too, had her chances, although she was often the victim of vicious serving in clutch situations from the 28-year-old as the set remained locked on serve at 6-6, forcing the tiebreak.
The Belgian reached her 7th WTA Tour final, with a 6th title in sight and No 1 seed Simona Halep standing in her way.
“I played her at the Australian Open this year and it was a close one,” Mertens said. “She’s in the final, so she’s got a lot of matches in and will be confident.
“I’ll try to improve, see what I can do better. I’ll try to do that today and tomorrow morning, but I’ll just try to focus on my main things: a good serve and a good return.”
Halep leads Mertens 3-1 in their head-to-head, including a 2-0 mark on clay where she lost just 6 games in 4 combined sets.
“The final is always difficult. It doesn’t matter what we did before,” said Halep who will bid for a 21st title. “I’m going to give my best because I really want to win it, but it’s never easy.
“I’ll just try to recover until tomorrow and enjoy that I’m going to play another final.
“I’m confident that I can play good tennis against her, but she’s a very tough opponent as well. I’m just trying to fight, to keep fighting until the end and to never give up.”
Mertens’ lone win in the match-up came in a final, where she rallied from a set down to capture the biggest title of her career to date at the 2019 Qatar Total Open in Doha.