This week, we're highlighting our top five WTA players of the year. On Monday, December 7, we'll turn our focus to the ATP. Click here to read each selection.
NOTABLE 2020 STATS
Titles: Dubai, Prague, Rome
Win-loss record: 23-3
Notable wins: Karolina Pliskova, Garbine Muguruza, Aryna Sabalenka, Elise Mertens
When Simona Halep took the court for her opening match at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on February 19, she had few expectations that the rhythm was gonna get’(her). It was her first match in nearly three weeks, after coming out on the losing end of a gritty Australian Open semifinal to Garbine Muguruza. Across the net stood Ons Jabeur, a talented shotmaker with an unpredictability factor, both in temperament and structuring, that often makes it difficult for an opponent to locate her inner Gloria Estefan.
Halep was correct, in that staying on the beat was a tall order on a stage surrounded by competing drumming from the partisan crowd. She dropped the first set, 6-1. She let a 4-1 lead slip in the third set, and saw Jabeur serve for the match at 6-5. She stared down match point when the Tunisian reached 7-6 in a decisive tiebreak, before winning the final three points. Little did the two-time major winner know her rumba with Jabeur was the beginning of a unique season showcase—one where rhythm did get Halep for three separate programs.
In Dubai, Halep’s week was full of finding the right steps against a variety of 2020 standout performers: Jabeur, Aryna Sabalenka, Jennifer Brady and Elena Rybakina. Her reprise with Sabalenka was particularly intriguing, as Halep had been unable to keep up with Sabalenka’s pace five weeks earlier in Adelaide.
“I didn't touch the ball that much in that match,” she recalled, having lost, 6-4, 6-2.
More of the same routine continued, with Halep dropping the first set to the Belarusian, 6-3. But this time, Halep made the adjustments, unearthing her own version of a quickstep to take the lead in the pair’s exchanges for a pair of 6-2 sets.
“She didn't have time to stay and to hit the ball. So I think that was the key of the match,” a pleased Halep assessed.
An additional sequel followed with Brady, an evolving player who held three set points in the Romanian’s opening set of tennis at Melbourne Park. In a masterclass where “everything went in my side,” Halep blitzed the American, 6-2, 6-0, to set up her final duel with Rybakina—another rising competitor who was already 19-3 on the year and set to contest her fourth title match.
For this finale, Halep and Rybakina tested each other’s stamina and dynamism by packing in continuous twists and bends: Halep, after losing the first set and trailing by an early break in the decider, saw her shot to serve out the match at 6-5 denied by the 20-year-old Kazakh. Rybakina opened a 4-3 mini-break lead in the final-set tiebreaker, but Halep’s remarkable resolve once again allowed her to complete the final turn of an enthralling presentation between two counterpoints and celebrate her 20th tour-level title.
“I always had in my mind that I have to be consistent. I didn't like the way that you win a tournament and then you don't do anything for a few months,” said Halep, who was spending her 317th week inside the Top 10. “I liked to build my power, to build my consistency every week. Since I met Darren (Cahill), I thought that we just have to look at the big picture, not just at that week.
“I think this makes me more proud than winning titles because if you are able to be there means that you have everything like power, strong mental, physical also, very strong.”
The coronavirus pandemic would halt Halep’s opportunity to see where her consistency-first approach would take her next, though it offered the 29-year-old the chance to nurse a right foot injury on her own timeline. Her Wimbledon title defense was pushed back a year, as the AELTC canceled the grass-court major for the first time since 1945. When the WTA was set to reopen in Palermo, Halep withdrew citing travel concerns and rising COVID-19 cases in Romania. She traveled to Prague the following week and officially resumed on August 11 against Polona Hercog.
In a symmetric continuation of Dubai, Halep navigated her way through a final-set tiebreaker to win her season debut on clay after needing seven match points to close out Hercog. She next found her way past Barbora Krejcikova, rallying from a set and a break down in an effort she admitted, “wasn’t a very good level from me.”
But after two rounds, Halep shook off the rust. Rhythm took over for the next six sets, with the reward of adding to her trophy cabinet. Elise Mertens, who ultimately would go on to win more matches than any other WTA player in 2020, finished runner-up.
“This is a definitely a smaller tournament than the previous ones. But it meant more because we are coming after a six-month break, and I didn’t know what to expect,” Halep told us after her victory.
Halep would skip the US Open, joining seven other Top 10 women who opted out of making the trip to Flushing Meadows. She stayed in Europe, continuing to train on clay in hopes of claiming a crown that had evaded her in the past: Rome. In her road to achieving that dream, thwarting the last woman who upstaged her, Muguruza, became reality.
The Spaniard had reason to be confident, having outclassed a red-hot Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals. But she was yet to get the better of Halep on clay, and despite closing a 1-5 gap to get back on serve in their third set, Muguruza tossed in consecutive double faults to collapse at the end. Halep welcomed the opportunity to face second seed Karolina Pliskova for the title, having lost in the 2017 and 2018 finals to Elina Svitolina. Winning eight of nine games to begin against an ailing Pliskova, Halep finally stepped into the Italian Open winner’s circle when the Czech retired with a left thigh injury.
“The start of my going up in the ranking was here in 2013. So I really dreamed to have this title,” Halep said. “I'm really, really happy that it happened today.”
Halep grew her win streak to a career-best 17 matches, until Iga Swiatek created her own masterpiece in the round of 16 at Roland Garros to exact revenge in Paris. Four weeks later, Halep announced she tested positive for COVID-19. “I am feeling good… We will get through this together,” she shared on social media.
Overcoming an uneasy period is something everyone has been forced to face in 2020. As professional tennis prepares for another season of uncertainty, Halep will be well-versed to feel the pulse of its ever-changing track. For one must believe after what she produced this year, it’s only a matter of time until the rhythm is gonna get Simo yet again.