For the first time since 2016, the top two seeds in a WTA tournament will contest the final of of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia after both Simona Halep and Karolina Plíšková came through their respective semi-finals with wins over Garbiñe Muguruza and Marketa Vondrousova on Sunday.
Thank God I don't play Svitolina because I've already lost two times against her. I really want to win this title, but it's always tough. Simona Halep
Unusually, the final of the Italian Open will be played on Monday.
Halep reached her third Rome final with a hard-fought battle over Muguruza, holding off a pair of late surges from her fellow former No 1 on Sunday afternoon.
“She’s a very, very difficult player and a good player,” Halep said. “It’s always a good feeling when I win against her.
“I feel confident now that I was able to win this match. I know I had so many chances to maybe finish it a little bit faster and easier, but as we saw, she doesn’t give up.
“I’m happy that I was a little bit stronger and I was more aggressive when I needed to be.”
Both are French Open champions are among the favourites in Paris, with little separating them in a 6-3 4-6 6-4 victory for Halep that entertained the 1,000 fans allowed into the Foro Italico for the first time since the Tour was suspended due to Covid-19.
Runner-up in Rome in 2017 and 2018, Halep sought to take advantage of any stiff legs that Muguruza might have had after a draining three-set victory over Victoria Azarenka on Saturday
A big forehand winner was a statement of intent from the 28-year-old, and when the World No 17 went long in the following point, she had an immediate break.
The Romanian had begun brilliantly, looking rock solid early on against a somewhat erratic Muguruza and building a 6-3, 4-2 lead, but the Spaniard won 4 games in a row to level it at a set apiece.
Opening up a 5-1 lead in the first set courtesy of two breaks of serve, Halep looked in complete control as both were forced to work hard to protect their serve.
When the second break came, it was through unforced errors from Muguruza that offered the opening, which was taken as Halep rolled a backhand winner down the line.
Although the 26-year-old Spaniard won one of the breaks back, her vulnerability on serve told as Halep sealed the set.
Two straightforward holds began the second before Muguruza, who left the court to receive treatment on a lower back injury after the opener, worked the first break point only for Halep to respond.
On her return, the Romanian worked her way into a lead once more when Muguruza’s serve broke down with a double-fault.
Backed into a corner, the 2016 Roland Garros winner adopted a high-risk approach that yielded a break, and although the following game slipped away due to another double, her heavy hitting dragged her back level at 4-4.
Halep then twice went long to give up her serve, and Muguruza squared the match by serving out the second to love.
With heavy strapping on the Spaniard’s left thigh, Halep looked much the better, physically, as she moved into a 5-1 lead in the decider, but the Romanian was pegged back again to 5-4..
She was then broken twice while serving for the match, but Muguruza was unable to level, her disappointment obvious as she served back-to-back double-faults to end the match as Halep took the 10th game of the set to close it out after 2 hours and 18 minutes of enthralling play.
In the final Halep faces second seed Plíšková in the final, after the Czech player beat her compatriot Marketa Vondrousova 6-2 6-4.
The World No 2, who is now on a 13-match winning streak, will be hoping it is third time lucky having lost to Elina Svitolina in the final in both 2017 and 2018.
“Thank God I don’t play Svitolina because I’ve already lost two times against her,” Halep joked. “I really want to win this title, but it’s always tough.”
Halep leads Plíšková 7-4 but Plíšková has won the last two, while the Romanian needed three sets to win the 2017 French Open semi-finals.
Plíšková sees off Vondrousova
Karolina Plíšková’s passage into the final was more straight-forward, booking a 6-2 6-4 win over the 2019 French Open finalists Marketa Vondrousova in an hour 22 minutes.
The defending champion, who last year defeated Johanna Konta in the final, was in no mood to stumble against her fellow Czech, rendering ineffective all opponent clay-court skills, a surface on which Plíšková is becoming more comfortable on.
“It’s been a strange relationship with clay, but it’s not like I ever hated it,” she said in her post match press conference. “If anything, I hate grass more!
“I’ve had some great weeks on clay, making the semis in Paris, so it’s not like I don’t look forward to the surface. It’s a nice change because we spend a quite a long time on hard courts.”
Seeded No 2 at the Foro Italico, the 2019 champion navigated a tricky second set after a scintillating opener against her countrywoman, booking a championship match with fellow former World No 1 Simona Halep after 82 minutes on Court Centrale.
“I feel like I have more time to play my game on clay, and some my best matches and victories have been on clay,” she added. “I feel it can be for me, and with every year I prove that even more, winning smaller tournaments, then indoors in Stuttgart, then Rome last year.
“Now I feel like I can replicate those results without huge preparation on clay, because there obviously wasn’t that much time.
“With me, it’s always about my mental side, how I feel, where I’m at, and whether I can enjoy.”
The second set proved the trickier for Plíšková to navigate, as her younger 21-year old compatriot started by finally breaking her serve, but she wrestled away the break back before converting another break t.
Plíšková couldn’t hold her advantage for long as Vondrousova broke back to level the set at 4-all.
In the 9th game, Plíšková saved a break point to hold onto her serve and then broke Vondrousova for the third time in the set to get the win.
Both players finished with 23 winners for the match, but while Plíšková held a slightly higher number of unforced errors at 21 to Vondrousova’s 18, she converted 5 of the 13 break points and saved 5 of the 7 she faced, 6 of which came in the second set.
Plíšková’s resurgence comes after, as the top seed at the US Open, she fell in the second round and left North America a disappointing 1-2 after two events.
“Everyone was talking about how badly America went for me, but I guess I was the only one who didn’t feel that way!” she said. “Results don’t always have to be great to feel good about yourself, and even just traveling there was a big step, so that may be why I feel better here.
“I’ve experienced the bubble and played some matches, and over the last few years, I’ve gotten to play a lot of matches, and that’s something I need.
“I didn’t have many in America but even those three helped me to feel like I’m back and competing.
“I’ve had tough opponents in Rome, but I feel my level is bit higher with every match, and the girls are tough on clay.
“It’s never been my favourite surface, but now I know I can play some great tennis and win tournaments on it.”
To successfully defend her title in Rome she must overcome the World No 2, Simona Halep, who leads their head-to-head 7-4 but Plíšková won their last match played at the 2019 WTA Finals.
“I can’t say I was in the mental state I am now back then, because at the time, playing Simona on clay would have felt like no chance,” Plíšková said. “Now, I would go for it more and believe I could beat her. We’ve had a lot of good matches.
“When I beat her, I believe for the first time in Fed Cup, the surface was slow, so that’s where the belief started.
“In Paris, I almost won and she was playing great that day. I feel like it’s still her surface, not mine, but I’ve beaten her on clay before.
“It’s a different story on hard courts; that feels more like my surface!
“It’s going to be super tough because she’s fighting hard, won the tournament in Prague and is into the final here.
“It’s never going to be easy against her, no matter the tournament, but it’s going to be a great final.”