At this highly prestigious women’s tournament, one of the four Premier Mandatory events in the calendar, world No3 Simona Halep had won twice from three finals, and was targeting her 25th match-win in the Spanish capital. She was reigning French Open champion from three finals at Roland Garros, and she was also runner-up at the last two Rome Opens. In short, Halep was as comfortable on clay as any woman on the tour.
Her semi-final this year in Madrid against the unseeded Belinda Bencic, currently ranked No18, would be her 21st on clay. In contrast, Bencic’s only clay semi-final came in Charleston in 2014, despite having won the junior French Open in 2013. And in Madrid, the 22-year-old Swiss was playing for the first time since 2015, and had never won a main-draw match at the Magic Box until this year.
Yet the young Bencic was a woman on the rise, having first shot up the ranks to No7 in 2015 as a teenager on the back of titles in Eastbourne and Toronto, plus finals in s-Hertogenbosch and Tokyo.
Knocked back to 300 after wrist surgery in 2017, she was back fitter and stronger than ever, and arrived in Madrid with the Dubai title and 25 match-wins—plus victory with Roger Federer in the Hopman Cup. And she had already stacked up wins over some formidable opposition in Madrid, not least a two-and-a-quarter-hour win over world No1 Naomi Osaka, 3-6, 6-2, 7-5.
That she also had two wins from three meetings over Halep gave still more weight to her challenge of reaching the final, the most recent of them a three-set thriller in Dubai. But they had never played on clay.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, it was a tight and nervy start from both women, first Halep with a break and a 2-0 lead, then a break back for 2-2. But Halep was playing near perfect tennis, a wonderful combination of big, accurate strikes from the baseline and fast, nimble defence as Bencic tried to replicate her opponent’s depth and width through long rallies.
Confidence seemed to flood Halep’s game via winning strikes off forehand and backhand down both wings. She broke again, 5-2, and served out the set in a scant half hour, 6-2, having won 15 of the last 17 points.
The second set began in similar fashion, a break apiece, but this time, it was Bencic who looked the bolder, stronger and more creative with her tactics. She began to come forward more, and with considerable success. A seventh volley from seven got another break for 3-1.
Halep, though, was not backing off from her strategy, broke straight back, and they would continue like the proverbial unstoppable force versus immovable object in a wonderful passage of play and high intensity.
Bencic worked a set point in the 12th game, only to see Halep fire off a couple of winners to hold, and they headed to a tie-break.
There, Bencic was in full flow, denying Halep any time to assert her baseline game. The Swiss opened with a fine touch volley winner, and she edged to 3-0 with a backhand return-of-serve winner. Not until the fifth point did Halep get on the board, but it would be too little, and Bencic served out the set, 7-6(2), having fired off 22 winners, and she was still perfect at the front of the court.
But that would quickly change at the start of the third, as a lapse in intensity and concentration from the Swiss was punished by Halep. Bencic could not handle a vicious return to her feet, netted a volley—her first net error in 13—and Halep broke.
And the Romanian began to serve like a woman closer to 6ft than her 5ft6in stature, finding three serve winners to hold for 3-0.
Bencic showed just how disappointed she was with the turn in fortunes, and wept during a hasty coaching session at the change of ends. If Halep was not confident before, she certainly would be now against an opponent perhaps carrying some of the baggage from her comeback effort over Osaka the day before.
Halep was ruthless, determined and near flawless again as the match headed to its conclusion in double-quick time. Two more breaks, and she was into her fourth Madrid final, 6-0.
And so the mighty Romanian maintains her assault on reclaiming not just the Madrid title but the No1 ranking. She has to win the title, which means a victory come Saturday over either Kiki Bertens or Sloane Stephens, but in this kind of form, it is a brave person who would bet against it.
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