Madrid Premier WTA

Madrid Premier: Simona Halep wins back-to-back titles, as Mladenovic ‘takes only positives’

Simona Halep beats Kristina Mladenovic to win the Madrid Premier WTA tournament

They don’t come much bigger than the Madrid Mutua Open on the women’s tennis circuit: Only the four Majors out-rank the four Premier Mandatories, of which Madrid is the only one played on clay.

So doing well here is a big deal, and requires six match-wins against the best that the sport has to offer—and few have done it better here than the power-pack Simona Halep. For the defending champion was also runner-up in Madrid in 2014, making her the first woman to reach three finals in the tournament.

And make no mistake, Halep has fine clay credentials. With her run to the final, she was on 21 wins from of her last 24 matches on clay, with her most recent success coming in Fed Cup wins against GB and her semi run in Stuttgart.

Her only Major final to date has also been on clay, at Roland Garros, but Halep is no one-trick pony. She has won big on hard courts, too—at Indian Wells and the Rogers Cup for a start—and has made the semis both at the US Open and on the grass of Wimbledon. Suffice to say, her compact explosive game, fast feet and clean ball striking have made her one formidable opponent.

But she was up against the tall, elegant French woman Kristina Mladenovic who, until relatively recently, had been a big presence on the doubles scene. She would turn 24 the day after her first Premier Mandatory final having won only one singles title before, in St Petersburg this year. However, she had 16 doubles titles in her resume, so along with a big serve and forehand, the Frenchwoman had confident skills in the front of the court and a deadly drop shot.

She had also beaten Halep in three of their four previous matches, but they had never before played on clay. And there was another factor in this contest.

Mladenovic had spent longer on court in Madrid this week, and she did not finish her work until late Friday night, a physical battle against No8 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova. There, she had begun to show back problems in the latter stages. Could she recover enough to handle all the running she would need to do against Halep?

It looked as though the French woman determined to come out fast and win this from the front. She pressed Halep hard in a long first game, and the Romanian made a couple of nervy double faults to help her opponent grab an immediate break.

Mladenovic opened out that drop-shot early, but Halep is quick, and she chased them down to hold her second service game, and then found her range from the baseline: It took a few deuces, but she finally got her chance to break back: 2-2.

Mladenovic was not moving too freely, especially to the backhand wing, but she held to love and then broke again, and served for the match at 5-4. However, Halep was improving all the time, and she broke again to level, and saved break point to hold for the lead, 6-5.

Now Mladenovic was showing signs of back pain, and increasingly resorted to sliced replies on both wings, and Halep went on the offensive to take advantage. She broke for the set, 7-5.

This time, Halep held her opening game and broke in the second, 2-0, only for Mladenovic to use her flat power through the court to eat up anything short, and she broke back.

She had, it seemed, made the tactical decision to go for her shots and keep things short, and she managed to take the defending champion to a tie-break. There, she produced one of the sliced drop shots of the championships to bring up set point, and converted at the second attempt to level the match, roaring to the skies as she did so, 7-6(5).

However, the French woman would struggle to find much more resistance despite sterling effort in defence. Halep broke in the third game, and broke again in the seventh. With two and three-quarter hours on the clock, she served out to love for an emotional victory.

Considering the contraint under which Mladenovic was playing, she put in some fine statistics: 40 winners to 30 errors and, as one might expect, some great numbers around the net, winning 25 out of 30. Halep’s were the smaller all round, but then her pugnacious and quick tennis can turn defence to attack on a dime—not unlike a certain fellow finalist this weekend, Rafael Nadal.

After missing so much of the early hard-court season with injury, this must feel like milk and honey to Halep: She climbs from No8 in this week’s rankings to No4 for next week—though that comes too late to help her in the Rome Premier in the week ahead, where she is seeded six in the absence of Serena Williams and Agnieszka Radwanska.

However, she does earn a bye to the second round in the Eternal City, while Mladenovic, who rises to a seeding of 13, will have to take that sore back straight into action in Round 1, and it is a tough one against Julia Goerges.

Not that Mladenovic was ready to blame her back for her loss: Instead she praised her opponent and the quality of the match:

“I can just be proud out there from both of us what we showed. I think it was a great final. Great spirit, attitude, great game. Got to give credit to Simona for an amazing game today.

“Yeah, just head up and only take the positives.”

Some compensation may be that she rises to No4 in the Race to Singapore. Happy birthday Kiki.

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