In the much anticipated Purple Group clash at the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen on Monday between No 4 seed Bianca Andreescu’s clash with No 5 seed Simona Halep, it was the Wimbledon champion who saved a match point to edge the US Open winner, 3-6 7-6(6) 6-3.
Today, it was a challenge because she's 10 years younger than me. It was a good fight. I'm happy about my victory Simona Halep
“It’s been a great match both sides, in my opinion. She did great this year. Winning so many tournaments gave her a lot of confidence. I expected a very tough match,” Halep, contesting her first match since the China Open, said.
“I’m really proud actually that I could fight in this way because I have a month that I didn’t really practice with my back, with the injury. But looks like I’m still there.
“Today, it was a challenge because she’s 10 years younger than me. It was a good fight. I’m happy about my victory.”
It was one of two first-time encounters to take place at the WTA Finals this year, alongside Ash Barty and Belinda Bencic’s thrilling matchup on Sunday, and both contests demonstrated the quality of this year’s field.
Debutante Andreescu was bidding for her ninth Top 10 win in 10 such matches this year, with Naomi Osaka the only player in that echelon to have beaten the Canadian so far.
Halep, however, was not having it, and it doesn’t get any better than the US Open champion Andreescu taking on the Wimbledon champion Halep in just the third encounter between reigning Grand Slam victors this season, following Australian Open champion Osaka’s defeats of Andreescu and Roland Garros champion Barty in the Beijing quarter-finals and final respectively last month.
At 19 years old, Andreescu is the youngest qualifier for this year’s WTA Finals, and the first teenager to do so since a 19-year-old Caroline Wozniacki in 2009.
She is also the 4th Canadian in history to compete at the year-ending event, following Carling Bassett-Seguso in 1984 and 1985, Helen Kelesi in 1988 and 1989 and Eugenie Bouchard in 2014.
Andreescu’s parents hail from Romania and their daughter spent chunks of time there when younger.
Later, she got the chance to meet Halep, who fielded questions and gave her some advice.
On this occasion it was the Wimbledon champion who ultimately had the right answers on court on Monday against Canada’s maiden Grand Slam singles winner.
Andreescu did not disappoint, and nor did her idol Halep, back with her trusty old coach, Darren Cahill.
“It was a very tough match,” Halep said. “I knew that she’s a great player and she’s playing till the end without giving up. I had to fight.”
When the Romanian secured the second set to level the match, it was so refreshing to see her wide smile, enjoying the chase.
The Canadian won 4 straight games to pocket the opening set, and twice came from a break down in the second to put herself in pole position to win her debut match at the season-ending tournament, holding a match point on Halep’s serve in the 12th game.
The Romanian, however, induced a backhand error from the Canadian to close a long rally en route to holding serve, and kept the dramatic clash alive by winning the second set tiebreak in extra points, after holding leads of 3-0 and 6-4.
“She changes a lot the rhythm, with some slices that you don’t really expect them. I think at the match point I’ve been aggressive with the backhand down the line, if I remember well,” Halep continued.
“I didn’t think that I can lose the match [at match point]. I just wanted to start, even if could have been too late, to start to hit the ball and go down the line. I think today it was a good shot against her.”
The Romanian’s comeback efforts weren’t done from there.
Despite being the first player to lose serve in the decider, being broken in the third game to trail 2-1, Halep ultimately won 5 of the last 6 games to seal victory in 2 hours and 34 minutes, over an hour after Andreescu held match point.
“In the second set, even if she was leading, I had a thought that I’m stronger mentally. We had some long rallies, and I won those balls,” Halep said.
“Then I just didn’t think about the result. I’ve been focused on myself. I just had in my head what I have to play against her to be good.”
This was high-quality tennis but, worryingly, it slowly became apparent that Andreescu was struggling, unable to twist and needing a medical timeout.
She got treatment on her back and thereafter appeared to struggle with her movement for parts of the third set, failing to convert any of the 3 chances she held to extend her third-set lead to 3-1.
The Romanian quickly charged through her opening to win the next 3 games, flipping a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 advantage.
Andreescu continued to battle and got the final set back on serve, but relentless counter-punching from Halep proved to make the difference in the end.
From 30-30 on the Canadian’s serve in the penultimate game, Halep won the last 6 points, and emphatically sealed the comeback with her first, and only, love hold of the match.
“I love playing under pressure,” Halep said after the match. “I’m happy that I could fight with a girl who is 10 years younger than me.”
Ironically, Andreescu won 2 points more overall, hitting 36 winners and 38 unforced errors, while Halep struck 23 winners against 31 miscues, scoring 3 straight breaks in the decider to cross the finish line first.
The Canadian earned 15 break opportunities and converted 7, one more than Halep, who grabbed her return games in the more critical moments to score a win.
Thundering from both wings, Andreescu hit 15 winners in the first set and rattled off 4 straight games from 2-3 to clinch it with breaks in games 7 and 9, moving a set away from the triumph when Halep netted a forehand in that 9th game.
In set number two, Halep scored a similar number of winners and unforced errors, staying neck and neck until that 12th game when she saved the match point, prevailing 8-6 in the tiebreak after a service winner to force a third set.
Andreescu moved in front in the 3rd game of the decider before Halep pulled it back immediately to remain on the positive side of the scoreboard.
The Romanian grabbed another break to move 4-2 up and there was more drama just around the corner, as Andreescu broke back in the very next game with a return winner.
Staying focused, Halep delivered the third straight break that sent her 5-3 in front, sealing the deal with a forehand winner in game 9 for a significant victory at the beginning of the competition.
“I think I was executing the right tactics. My serve. My return was good today, for most of the match at least. I didn’t feel intimidated at all stepping on the court,” the Canadian said after the match,
“I know I looked up to her a lot, so being able to play her was really fun. Yeah, maybe I’ll get to play her again here, get my revenge.
“It was a good match. She fought really hard. I didn’t take my chances in the second set, so I’m really disappointed about that.”
Earlier, defending champion Elina Svitolina stretched her unbeaten run at the season-ending tournament into a new year, beating Karolina Pliskova 7-6 12) 6-4 in her opening match.
Svitolina, the only player in this year’s field who has not won a title this season, was unbeaten in the tournament last year and so far is the only player not to drop a set.
After exchanging service breaks in the first set, Svitolina converted her 7th set point in the titanic tiebreak.
“You tell yourself to stay in the moment,” Svitolina said of the lengthy tiebreak. “You just try to play one rally at a time, to don’t rush. Even when I had the chances to finish the set, because there was few, I thought I could play better.”
Pliskova also had a chance to take the opener, but failed to take advantage of her set point at 9-8 in the breaker and after, she struggled to stay in the match.
“I think that decided all match,” the Czech player admitted. “Even though I had some chances in the second set, too, it was a big part of the match, the first set.
“Everything what I just won was because I made a winner or because I was pushing her. Overall I think she didn’t give me many mistakes.”
Needing three sets to seal her victory, Halep now sits behind Svitolina in the Purple Group.
The Romanian evened her head-to-head against the Ukrainian at 4-4 over the course of this year, winning both matches the pair played, including a 6-1 6-3 win in the semi-finals at Wimbledon.
“[It] looks like she likes the court. She feels it. She has confidence on this court. She won last year. It’s a great thing to win this tournament because it’s like playing the final of a Grand Slam every day,” Halep concluded.
“It’s going to be a tough match definitely. I’m looking forward to it. But first I will enjoy the day off tomorrow. I try to recover and then we will see.
“But I’m ready to fight again and I’m happy to be in this position.”