Cincinnati Premier 2018: Kiki Bertens powers to biggest title over No1 Simona Halep
World number one Simona Halep loses in three sets to Kiki Bertens in the Cincinnati Premier final
Simona Halep worked long and hard to reach No1 in the world, thwarted time and again during 2017. But if anyone had grown into the role once she finally hit the top last October, it was the popular Romanian.
Yes, she had to give way to Caroline Wozniacki for a month when the Dane beat her at the Australian Open at the start of 2018, but outstanding Premier runs since then had ensured that she returned to the top—and had stayed there now for a total of 41 weeks.
The semi-finals in Doha and Indian Wells, the final in Rome and the title at the French Open—beating Angelique Kerber, Garbine Muguruza and Sloane Stephens back to back—showed her stamina, sticking power, and confidence.
Come the hard courts of North American, she proved her worth there, too. Her tennis on the way to the Rogers Cup title was outstanding, with the final against Stephens touted already as the best match of the year. And in a high-quality draw in Cincinnati, she had not dropped a set since her opening match.
So she entered Cincinnati on a nine-match winning streak having won 18 of her last 19 matches dating back to Roland Garros. She was after her fourth title of the year, and led her final opponent, Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens, 3-1, though they had never played on outdoor hard courts.
Not that Halep should have felt concern over that: Bertens had generally been regarded as a clay-court specialist, with all five titles coming on the red stuff.
However, the world No15 showed just how her big game has evolved after winning her first Premier in Charleston and then reaching the biggest final to date, the Madrid Premier Mandatory.
She went on to make her first Wimbledon quarter-final and then the quarters at the Rogers Cup last week, scoring her first top-10 wins on hard courts in the process: Petra Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova. And she had gone from strength to strength, knocking off three more big names, including No2 Wozniacki, Elina Svitolina and Kvitova again, on her way to the ultimate test, a showdown with the world No1.
But Halep started with her usual pugnacious focus, broke in the very first game, and held for 2-0. She broke again for a 5-2 lead, and served out the first set comfortably, in just half an hour. The 6ft Dutchwoman may tower over the 5ft6in Halep, but there was no disputing who towered over this final, 28 points to Bertens’ 19, and with only four unforced errors.
But the powerful Bertens was about to step things up, and got an early break, then held for 4-1. An on-court coaching session for Halep seemed to have the desired effect, though, and she penetrated the corners to break back and hold for 4-4.
Bertens remained under pressure in the ninth game, but resisted, and held to love to edge back ahead, 6-5.
Come the tie-break, and Halep stole the early advantage, 2-0, but Bertens upped her aggressive play to take the next four points, 4-2 at the change of ends. Yet from 5-3 up, the Dutchwoman all at once found herself serving to save the match, 5-6. A huge, bold forehand saved the day, and more bold play at the front of the court earned its reward: the set, 7-6(6).
Both left the court to change—this final Sunday was one of the sunniest of the week—and on her return, Bertens rode her momentum to a quick break, only for Halep to hit straight back, but the Romanian faced two more break points in the third game, and thumped a ball long to concede the game.
Halep was beginning to show signs of wear and tear, bent double, and buckling under the weight of Bertens’ shot-making. She was broken again in the fifth game, 4-1. Could this ultimate fighter find enough to get back into the match?
Initially it seemed, yes. She worked two break points, and did so in style, courtesy of with a tweener reply to a lob. Yet still Bertens pulled back to deuce, and held: 5-1.
Halep rallied to hold serve, and then had one last chance to strike back with a final break point, but it did not dent the Dutchwoman. Bertens served out her victory after more than two hours, to claim not just her first hard court title, but her biggest title.
Little wonder that she was lost for words when presented with the trophy:
“Hopefully I can talk. I cannot find words for this moment. I’m so happy.
“Simona, I think it’s been an unbelievable year for you at No1. Sorry for today, but hopefully we can play many more matches like this in the future.”
Halep knows she will remain No1 at least until the conclusion of the US Open, but Bertens will celebrate a new career-high of 13 before the final Major of the year begins.
She also knows that she now belongs among the big names herself—and not just on the red stuff.