Click here to read Steve's entire countdown of the Best Matches of 2018.

HIGHLIGHTS: Simona Halep d. Sloane Stephens, Rogers Cup final, 7-6 (6), 3-6, 6-4


“She makes me play better and better every time we meet each other,” Simona Halep said of Sloane Stephens after beating—surviving may be the better word—the American, 7-6 (6), 3-6, 6-4, in the final of the Rogers Cup in Montreal.

Stephens didn’t hesitate to return the complement on that hot August afternoon.

“Every time I play her, she makes me a better player, she makes me raise my level,” Sloane said of Halep, who also won their grueling three-set final at Roland Garros two months ago. “Sometimes you gotta get your butt kicked the hard way, and that’s OK.”

In 2018, Sloane and Simona formed a two-woman mutual-admiration society; more important, they began to form the most brutally entertaining new rivalry in tennis. The WTA had an abundance of interesting story lines in 2018, from the Grand Slam breakthroughs of Halep and Caroline Wozniacki, to the resurgence of Angelique Kerber, to the rise of a new generation of potential stars such as Daria Kasatkina, Naomi Osaka, and Aryna Sabalenka. But for the most part the women’s tour lacked a reliable rivalry at the top of the rankings. With Halep and Stephens, who reached No. 1 and 3 in the world respectively, it had the beginnings of a good one.

Top 10 of '18, No. 5: Halep battles past Stephens in Rogers Cup final

Top 10 of '18, No. 5: Halep battles past Stephens in Rogers Cup final

The two women have very different personalities: the 27-year-old Halep, from Romania, runs hot, while the 25-year-old Stephens, from California, runs cool. Yet they’re mirror images in the way they play. Halep described Stephens’ game as “complex” in Montreal, and that’s a pretty good description of Halep’s as well. Both women are comfortable defending and counterpunching, but they’re also capable of taking the offensive when necessary.

While that combination makes life tough on their opponents, it can also lead to tactical confusion and frustration for Sloane and Simona themselves. They realize that they play their most effective tennis when they’re attacking, but it’s still tempting for them to do what they love to do most: sit back and retrieve. Their coaches, Darren Cahill (he and Halep have since split) and Kamau Murray, spent 2018 fighting to get them to step into the court. “I don’t want to see your feet in Montreal anymore,” Murray said to Stephens during this match. It was his way of urging her to stay in front of the Montreal logo behind the baseline.

Put those two styles and mentalities together and you get matches like the Rogers Cup final: Close and brutal—“bruising” was the word that was used most often during its two hours and 41 minutes, and it was an apt one. Halep was treated for a toe blister, and both women looked ready to throw in the towel at various points. But neither did. Instead, they pushed each other through countless 20-plus shot rallies, countless break points and service breaks, countless tactical change-ups, and countless momentum swings. The latter began in the second game and continued all the way until Halep served out the match on her second try, and on her fourth match point.


Top 10 of '18, No. 5: Halep battles past Stephens in Rogers Cup final

Top 10 of '18, No. 5: Halep battles past Stephens in Rogers Cup final

Those rallies weren’t a surprise, but at times the resilience of both players was. As the first set lengthened into a mini-epic, it seemed that whoever lost it was likely to lose the second set as well. Instead, Stephens bounced right back, broke early, and leveled the match. Then, early in the third set, it was Halep’s turn to appear as if she were on her last legs. She had a blister, she was doubled over and gasping after each point, and she could only stand and watch as Stephens fired forehand winners past her. When Sloane went up 40-15 at 2-2, it seemed like a lock that she would begin to pull away. Instead, it was Halep who came back to break, hold serve, and break again for 5-2.

Stephens had one more comeback in her, and she made it dramatic at the end—that was only logical on a day when so little separated these two finalists. But Sloane lost this match for the same reason she lost the French Open final to Halep. In Paris, Stephens led by a set and a break, and then froze when the finish line came into view. In Montreal, the shift wasn’t as drastic, but it happened at a similar stage of the match. Just when Sloane looked poised to take the lead for good early in the third set, she didn’t.

If their rivalry builds, Stephens will learn to believe she can beat Halep in these types of matches. For this season, though, the Romanian was a little steadier with her shots, and that steadiness gave her a little more confidence that she could outlast Stephens down the stretch.

Still, this match wasn’t about who was better or who was worse. It was about the quality and drama of the contest itself, which were among the best that tennis had to offer in 2018.

"Both matches were crazy good,” Halep said of this final and the French Open final.

Is it just me, or did she sound a little like Sloane there?