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Madrid | Halep, Bertens stay focused to set up final clash

The Romanian kept her WTA top ranking hopes intact, despite an unexpected comeback from Belinda Bencic, while Bertens reached her second consecutive finals at the event with another poised performance against Sloane Stephens.

S. Halep (Rom, 3) d. B. Bencic (Swi, 18) 6-2 6-7 (2) 6-0

Reigning French Open champion Simona Halep reached her fourth Madrid final, after those of 2014, 2016, and 2017, and will try to lift the trophy for the third time in four editions, after beating Belinda Bencic in an encounter that tested her inner strength, after a cake-walk suddenly turned into a grit n’ grind affair.

Bencic has gone on record to claim that she still finds herself hating clay at times, but she sure looked at ease for a while during the match, and most likely appreciated the several redeeming chances that the slowest surface offers, despite her final breakdown.

For half an hour, Halep simply eviscerated Bencic. After an early trade of breaks, she won five games in a row, skating around the baseline to dictate with her forehand, opening whole galleries for her down-the-line winners, and cannibalising every Bencic second serve, dispatching her adversary in 27 minutes of plain sailing.

Thus, after Halep broke to love again in the first game of the second set, no-one could have expected such a sudden tidal change, as Bencic started to find her forehand after an outburst towards her father/coach (it wouldn’t be the last), and retorted with interests, breaking to love herself, and holding after a 30-40 deficit with her first ace of the day.

Halep took a few minutes to shrug off the surprise, and conceded three more break points, surrendering her serve at 30. However, she came back swiftly: she deftly exploited Bencic’s attacking rage to elicit more errors, and she kept scoring points with the slice serve on the deuce court, levelling things up at 3-3.

Apart from a set point cancelled by Halep on her serve on 5-6, events proceeded with no speedbumps to the tie-break, where Bencic was very measured, scoring a rare rally point to get the mini-break, and doubling it with a brilliant backhand return for a 3-0 lead. From there on, she didn’t look back and won 7-2.

The third set was surprisingly anti-climatic, though, for Bencic utterly lost her cool, rushing into decisions that got her broken in the second game, and, while 3-0 down, burst into tears following another argument with her dad. Halep, experienced and shrewd, didn’t flinch, managed her opponent’s rage, lenghtening the rallies, and broke two more times to bagel the frustrated Bencic. Notably, Halep won her fourth 6-0 set of the week, proving unstoppable once on a roll, and will look to get into that zone again against Kiki Bertens, her first clay-raised opponent of the week, in a match that promises to be abundant on rallies.

Kiki Bertens is looking for her maiden Premier Mandatory title.

K. Bertens (Ned) d. S. Stephens (USA) 6-2 7-5

World No.7 Kiki Bertens showed great composure in a not very spectacular match, beating eighth seed Sloane Stephens in an hour and 29 minutes to reach her second consecutive final in Madrid.

The Dutch is perfectly suited to this tournament’s peculiar environment, for she combines outstanding court coverage, consistent groundstrokes, and a good serve. The last one isn’t usually a requirement on the dirt, but is essential in the Spanish capital due to the altitude (about 650 metres above sea level) letting the ball travel more quickly through the air.

Stephens also considers clay her favourite surface (a curious choice for an American player), going within an inch of the Roland Garros crown last year. She has the rare gift of seamless mobility, almost looking as if she weren’t actually running at times, while her long stride teleports her on most balls, turning her into an impenetrable wall. Moreover, her apparently nonchalant attitude makes her hard to read, giving her a fraction of advantage whenever she decides to inject pace to her strokes.

However, the American isn’t that sharp in her split step right after her serve, and doesn’t have great reactions. Aware of these flaws, Bertens immediately took the initiative with her spinny forehand, pushing her foe out wide to the right and forcing her to hit on the run, immediately earning three break points and pulling ahead at 30. Stephens tried to bite back right away, but failed in what revealed itself to be the key of the match, i.e. her inability to capitalise on the many chances she earned, whereas Bertens was clinical from the get go. In that specific game, Stephens betrayed a lack of tranquillity despite her opponent’s early double faults woes, and tried to over-hit her shots down the line, getting pierced by a couple of drop shots along the way. Bertens appeared not to be bothered at all on return, and easily took a double break lead in the fifth game behind two forehand winners – it’s a pure clay shot, hit quite forward with an extreme elbow turn, which can create some issues on approaches, but is very effective in baseline rallies. Despite a low percentage of first serves (a rare occurrence for a player that’s hanging in the top five in most serve stats in 2019), Bertens controlled her games with varied seconds, and, after a set point saved by Stephens on her own serve, she easily held to seize control in 34 minutes.

During the break, Stephens’s coach Sven Groeneveld suggested a less passive approach (she finished with just six winners in the match, to Bertens’s twelve), and his protegé complied, augmenting the speed of her first serve, holding easily, and finally breaking in the sixth game by hitting more inside-out forehand to the Dutch’s backhand, creating room for her down-the-line two-hander. However, as mentioned above, Stephens didn’t play very lucidly at the crossroads of the game, allowing Bertens to lengthen the rallies once more, being very aware that she wouln’t be the first to miss. She saved the first two break points, but kept suffering against bouncy balls above hip-level, capitulating with a double fault. Once she’d evened the score, Bertens proved her coolness on decisive points in an even direr situation, saving three set points on her serve in the tenth game from 0-40 down, and suddenly switching tactics in the ensuing Stephens service turn, slicing and letting the American give her the win. After this emotional turmoil, the last game was a little more than a formality, and Bertens burst into tears as she forced a backhand mistake to reach the final. She is yet to lose a set in the tournament, and, should she remain spotless in the final, she’ll be the first woman to win the tournament without having to resort to a decider.

The final is set for tomorrow at the Manolo Santana Stadium, not before 5:30 pm, sandwiched between the men’s semi-finals. Halep leads 3-2 in the head-to.head, but in their last meeting, in August 2018 in the Cincinnati final, Bertens saved a match point to win her maiden Premier Mandatory/Premier 5 tournament.



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