Simona Halep came through a tough battle against the in-form Elena Rybakina 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 in a thrilling final to win the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships title on Saturday.
Fittingly, victory earned Halep the 20th title of her illustrious career in what was the 20th edition of the tournament. It was also her second title in Dubai following her win in 2015.
Rybakina, who has reached the final in all four WTA events she has played so far this year, has now tasted defeat in three of those title matches, with her only trophy triumph occurring at the Hobart International.
“I'm a bit upset that again it’s just the final,” Rybakina said. “But at the beginning of the week I didn't even expect that I would be in the final, so it's been a great week for me.”
Rybakina’s serve was always going to be a major factor in this final, and so it proved during a first set where Halep struggled to get a read on the world No 19’s key weapon, which had already delivered a tour-leading 132 aces prior to this match. The only break points Rybakina faced in the first set was when she was serving at 5-3, both of which she dealt with comfortably. At this stage of the contest, Rybakina had won nearly 83 per cent of her points on her first serve.
“I was actually checking the board to see how fast the serve was going,” Halep said in her on-court interview. “Sometimes I couldn’t really touch the ball.”
Tellingly, that percentage had dropped to 54.5 per cent by the end of the second set when Halep had found her rhythm and started to time Rybakina’s serve much more effectively. The Romanian set about levelling the match when she earned her first break in the fourth game, breaking Rybakina to love as the Kazakh suffered an untimely lapse in concentration.
Rybakina kept her composure to earn her own break to love in the seventh game, but the subsequent game was arguably the pivotal moment of the match, as Rybakina aimed to level the set at 4-4. However, she squandered three chances during a 15-point game, with Halep claiming the break at the fourth attempt before closing out the set on serve.
At one-set each, it was clear by the dynamic of the match that this encounter was going to be decided by the slimmest of margins. Rybakina initially seized the initiative in the decider by breaking for a 3-1 lead, but Halep immediately drew level.
It then appeared as though the top seed had hammered the penultimate nail into Rybakina’s coffin when she broke for a 6-5 lead. All she needed was one last hammer by serving out the championship. Instead, Rybakina fought back to force the tiebreak, which itself was almost too close to call before Halep secured the title when her opponent sent a backhand wide.
“It feels great that I could win it,” Halep said. “Actually, it was amazing. She fought till the end. She didn't give up any balls. It was really tough mentally. The pressure was very high. But I wanted it badly, so that's why I fought till the end.”
Halep has undoubtedly been the people’s champion this week, with the Romanian garnering the majority of the stadium support throughout the tournament, and she paid tribute to her fans for helping her to victory.
“Thank you, everyone, it was amazing. You pushed me forward during this match, so I really appreciate all your support,” she said.
While many players on the WTA Tour now head to Doha for the Qatar Open, Halep was opted to skip the tournament – “it’s a decision I took it before the match … I started this tournament a little bit injured with my foot” – and will instead treat herself to a special, celebratory meal on Sunday.
“I will go to Burj Al Arab,” she said. "I have never been, so I will have breakfast there to celebrate. I've been dreaming of that.”