“It was a good energy on court,” Simona Halep said after her 6-0, 2-1 (Ret.) win over Karolina Pliskova in the Rome final on Monday. Halep was referring to the few dozen fans who were scattered around the Foro Italico’s main stadium, and who greeted each of her winning shots with a smattering of applause. The sound was nothing compared to the raucous roars of Italian Opens past, but these days a tennis player will take whatever support she can get.
In the end, Halep didn’t need much help. Pliskova started the match with her left thigh taped, called the trainer out to briefly work on her lower back, and offered only token resistance before calling it a day. It may not have been the way Halep wanted to win the match, but she was happy to walk off with her long-awaited first title in Rome.
“Finally, after two finals I can win this title,” she said, “and I can have this beautiful trophy in my hands.”
In Rome, Halep won two matches in straight sets, one in three sets, and two via retirement to take home the trophy. (Getty Images)
What can we take away from a match that lasted just 32 minutes and consisted of just 53 points? Obviously, not a lot. But there are four things to consider:
(1) Pliskova was clearly off from the start; she struggled to move to her left, and to keep her backhand in the court. Even so, Halep immediately found a comfort zone a few feet behind the baseline, where she could defend Pliskova’s hard-hit shots, and also fire back an offensive shot of her own when she had the opportunity. She broke Pliskova in the opening game with a down-the-line backhand winner. Even after so much time off, Halep already looks comfortable on her favorite surface.
(2) Naomi Osaka and Sofia Kenin have won the two major events so far in 2020. Otherwise, though, the season has belonged to Halep. This was her third straight title, after Dubai and Prague, and her 14th straight win, dating back to her Australian Open semifinal loss to Garbiñe Muguruza, in one of the year’s most fiercely contested matches. While Halep won two of her matches by retirement in Rome, she also recorded two very good wins, over Dayana Yastremska and, in a little act of revenge, over Muguruza in the semifinals.
The fans that were able to attend Halep's semifinal win over Muguruza enjoyed some fine tennis. (Getty Images)
(3) “We’ll probably meet again in the final there,” Halep said to Pliskova, looking ahead, hopefully, to Roland Garros. That’s a bold prediction, but there’s no reason to think Halep won’t hold up her end of the bargain. The last two times she reached the final in Rome, in 2017 and 2018, she also reached the final in Paris. The 2018 champion will certainly be on the short list favorites in 2020, especially now that defending champion Ash Barty and US Open champion Osaka have announced that they won’t be playing, and Australian Open champion Kenin is struggling with her game. Halep, Muguruza, Victoria Azarenka, Serena Williams, perhaps Pliskova if she can get healthy: Those would seem to be the most likely contenders at the moment. In other words, Halep has as good a shot as anyone.
(4) Whether she wins Roland Garros or not, it has been good to have Halep back in the game this week. She was cautious about playing during the pandemic, and decided not to travel to the US Open. In Rome, she showed us what we were missing. With her mix of defense and offense, speed and consistency, she gave us entertaining rallies to watch. In her tooth-and-nail wins over Yastremska and Muguruza, she showed her competitive grit. In her winner’s speech after the final (watch above), when she said she didn’t mind having to spend all of her time “in the room” because of the pandemic, Halep flashed her old smile, gave us a little of her trademark deadpan humor, and showed us how much pleasure she still takes in competing, and especially in winning.
Halep was right, there was a “good energy” on court in Rome this week. And it started with her.