Anyone who was expecting a reprise of the outstanding French Open final played a few months ago by Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep had to be stunned by the way their rematch in the Cincinnati quarterfinals unfolded.
Sharapova also won this encounter, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, and by the same third-set score. But there the resemblance ended, for this two-hour and 32-minute clash was a disappointing comedy of errors in which each woman was broken eight times, and each one made roughly twice as many unforced errors as winners (Halep had 15 to 23; Sharapova 27 to 53).
I’m not sure what Halep, the world No. 2, was thinking when she said the other day that she was eager to meet Sharapova on hard courts. For while the cement surface certainly allows her to open angles and counter-punch more effectively, it also makes it harder to counter the probings of an aggressive player—and nobody, not even Serena Williams, is more aggressive than Sharapova.
And consider this: Both women are among the top four in the “return games won” WTA stat, yet in the head-to-head this surely would be an advantage for Sharapova. Halep’s serve is not nearly as powerful and penetrating (at least not when the lithe Russian is serving efficiently), and Sharapova’s return is probably the strongest part of her game.
The glaring difference in their serves was striking in the first set, although not in any the obvious way; eight of the nine games were breaks. What was clear, though, was that Sharapova was serving really poorly—under 50 percent, and sprinkling in loads of double faults—but returning well. In other words, she knew she would get all the looks she needed at her opponent’s serve, one that looked mediocre all night.
In the rallies, though, Halep’s superiority was striking. She fielded many of Sharapova’s signature, stinging groundstrokes and made her hit one more shot—a shot that often turned out to be an error. Halep also redirected the ball expertly, and made the transition from defense to offense in the blink of an eye. Yet the combination of Halep’s ineffective serving and Sharapova’s reliable return kept the Romanian from running away with the set, even if Sharapova’s inability to hold allowed Halep to win it.
Halep held to start the second set, and promptly broke Sharapova. It looked as if Halep had punched through, but then the wheels fell off, and a match that had been somewhat comical had degenerated into the absurd.
Serving for a 3-0 lead, Halep got to 30-all. But her first serve suddenly abandoned her, and Sharapova reeled off three straight points with big forehand winners to secure the break back. Sharapova then held to make it 2-all. She found her range and slowly began to get the better of Halep in the rallies. Clearly rattled, Halep was broken from deuce with two consecutive errors. But Sharapova proved no better than Halep at holding a lead; she was broken at 15 when she smacked a third-shot backhand into the net. It was 3-all.
Not to be upstaged, Halep allowed Sharapova another break, after which Sharapova held for 5-3. With less pressure on her, Halep held the next game, and then fought off three set points, the third a double fault that so incensed Sharapova that she petulantly flung her racquet to the ground.
But a Sharapova forehand winner and Halep’s failure to get the next serve over the net to give Sharapova the second set.
By this stage, I’m not sure by that stage anyone watching expected Halep and Sharapova to suddenly turn into paragons of sangfroid and consistency. Yet they did just that, exchanging five consecutive holds after a series of early breaks to bring it to 4-all in the third set.
But the nerves remained. Halep then played another unconvincing game, winning just the opening point and turning over the keys to the kingdom with a double fault. Sharapova struggled to close it out, and Halep was the victim of an unfortunate bad call that forced the replay of a point she clearly had won.
But from 30-all, Sharapova hit her finest second serve of the night and followed on with a stupendous forehand approach winner. At match point, the women engaged in one of the best rallies of the night, and Halep surrendered with a backhand hit just beyond the baseline. Once again, Sharapova’s toughness saw her through—even if neither was deserving of a win tonight.