Simona Halep had finally had enough.
“No more positivity,” she told her coach, Darren Cahill.
You could understand how she felt.
At that moment, Halep was down 1-4 in the third set to Kiki Bertens in the Cincinnati final, and it was hot. She had begun the match brilliantly, with a perfect mix of aggression and margin, and a seemingly boundless amount of confidence. She had won the first set and reached match point at 6-5 in the second set tiebreaker. One more winning point, one more miss from an erratic Bertens, and Halep would complete the exceedingly rare Canada-Cincinnati double, an achievement that would have to rate as high, or nearly as high, on the degree-of-difficulty scale as her win at Roland Garros two months earlier.
Except that Bertens didn’t miss. The Dutchwoman, who came in having won seven straight matches against Top 10 players, put in a solid first serve, followed it with an even more solid inside-out-forehand, and forced an error from Halep.
“I had a chance, but now it’s too much,” Halep said to Cahill, shaking her head when he tried to disagree. It turned out she was right. Bertens held her serve two more times for a 2-6, 7-6 (6), 6-2 win and the biggest title of her career.
By “it’s too much,” Halep didn’t just mean this match alone. She meant the two-week adventure that she has been on in Montreal and Cincinnati. There had been rain delays, there had been late nights, there had been days when she didn’t get to play, there had been days when she had to play twice, and there had been days when she had been sent off to play on small side courts. It had been enough to make Halep let loose about how unfairly the WTA had treated its top player.
Yet Halep had survived it all. She had won the title in Montreal, and, for the better part of two sets on Sunday, she had looked sure to win another in Cincy. Rather than killing her, all of the adversity and annoyances had made her stronger, and by the Cincy final they had helped her find a deep groove of confidence. Against Bertens, Halep came back from 1-4 down in the second set to level at 4-4. In that game, she reached break point by winning a long rally with a deftly angled forehand volley. After seeing that shot, and assuming Halep would go on to break, I thought, “We’ve reached Peak Simona.” Unfortunately for Simona, I was right; it was all downhill from there.
WATCH—Simona Halep's post-match press conference:
While Halep fought through adversity over the last two weeks, there’s still one thing she can’t control: What happens on the other side of the net. That’s true for every player, of course, but it’s especially true for her, because she doesn’t have the power to take over a match. When she gets to the later rounds in a tournament, she’s usually facing a bigger, taller, stronger player, and she’s usually at that player’s mercy.
That was the case in Sunday, too. During an on-court visit, Bertens’ coach, Raemon Sluiter, asked her how she thought she had built a lead in the second set. “By taking chances,” Bertens said, so Sluiter told her to keep doing that. While her go-for-broke style worked when she was behind in the score and had nothing to lose, it didn’t work so well once she was up 4-1 and had a lead to protect. Still, Sluiter gave Bertens the green light, because, as he told ESPN’s Pam Shriver, he thought it was important that the strategy come from her.
Bertens and Sluiter were both right. Down break point at 4-4, she hit a service winner, and then a second-serve ace. She won the second-set tiebreaker by hitting hard and deep from the baseline, and she only hit harder and deeper in the third set. While we’ve seen Halep’s confidence slowly grow over the last two weeks (and two months), we saw Bertens’ grow right before our eyes on Sunday. By the third set, she was throwing down bomb serves and belting return winners, and not showing a hint of nerves. She finished the match with an ace.
It was a fitting exclamation point for this statement win—which is really only the latest in a long series of statement wins by the 26-year-old. In the best shape of her life, she has beaten Venus Williams, Karolina Pliskova, Caroline Wozniacki, Elina Svitolina, Petra Kvitova twice, and now the world No. 1, Halep. Known as a clay-court specialist until a few weeks ago, Bertens has now reached the second week at Wimbledon, won her first event on hard-courts, and reached a career-high ranking of No. 13.
“I knew anything is still possible,” Bertens said afterward.
OK, but did she think all of this was possible, in such a short amount of time? And if so, what else does Bertens think is possible? How about a deep run at the US Open? After all, she’s beaten most of the high seeds by now.
On Sunday, Peak Simona turned into Peak Kiki. Now we’ll see how long she can stay on that summit.