Dubai Premier 2020: Halep beats gallant debutante Rybakina to win 20th career title

Halep admitted after marathon: “Sometimes it’s better if we finish equal”

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Simona Halep
Simona Halep (Photo: DDFTennis)

After a thrilling week of women’s tennis at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, a week that featured five of the top seven in the world, and a draw that included four Major champions, it came down to the world No2 and reigning Wimbledon champion, Simona Halep, and tournament debutante and world No19 Elena Rybakina.

The former champion—Halep won in Dubai in 2015—had faced just one seed in her three matches thus far, and was pursuing her 20th career title, after a fine run at the Australian Open to the semi-finals.

Yet it was Rybakina who had arguably put together the best results of the season. She was into her fourth final from five events played, winning Hobart and making the finals in Shenzhen and the St Petersburg Premier.

On her way to another Premier final in Dubai, she had beaten Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, world No3 Karolina Pliskova, and No8 seed Petra Martic to extend her WTA record for the year to 19 match-wins.

And having started from a ranking of 192 exactly a year ago, Rybakina had broken the top 20 for the first time this month, and would rise to a new high of 17 next week—No16 with the title. But that was a huge ask: She looked on her last legs during her semi-final battle against Martic, won in two tie-breaks from set-points down after two hours. She had spent more than seven and a quarter hours on court in Dubai, and that following on from five back-to-back matches in St Petersburg.

Meanwhile, Halep had played some dazzling tennis to reach this final—she admitted herself that it was the best she had played so far this week.

Yet it was the 20-year-old from Kazakhstan who began this final match with the greater flow and power, working an early break point in the second game, deuce in the fourth, and a break in sixth. She served for the set, 5-3, and it took an almighty effort to hold, saving two break points as Halep began to go for her shots with greater determination. Rybakina’s serve held up, though, and she led, 6-3.

She then had a break chance in the first game of the next set, but Halep’s intensity was increasing, and once she held, her focus and footwork were unbreakable, and she broke with some really aggressive play for a 3-0 lead.

The always-vocal Halep fans kept up the intensity, though their favourite failed to capitalise on break points in the sixth game, and paid the price—Rybakina ripped a couple of winners to work her own break chance.

However, the tall Kazakh could not consolidate as Halep pounded her through fierce backhand exchanges. The Romanian’s precision and penetration from behind the baseline wore down the younger woman, and Halep broke again after a 10-minute marathon, 5-3, and served out the set, 6-3.

The former world No1 and Dubai champion had the momentum, and her aggressive tactics had yielded 13 winners in the set. The early stages of the decider saw a wayward break on either side, but would it be Halep’s experience or Rybakina’s apparently nerveless aggression that won the day?

It was impossible to tell as they edged towards a tie-break conclusion via some quite outstanding tennis. When Halep pounced on a couple of rare errors from Rybakina in the 11th game to break, 6-5, it looked as though she would not need that tie-break, but the gutsy, bold and remarkably contained Rybakina was not done: She made first a backhand return winner, then a forehand to break back.

And the 20-year-old edged the first advantage in the tight tie-break, courtesy of another return-of-serve winner, 4-3. But she could not hold both her serves as Halep lifted her level another notch. Rybakina had a chance to bring up match-point but hit a backhand just wide, 5-5. And she it was who made the fateful error as she served on Halep’s first match point.

Five years on from her first title in Dubai, Halep won her second, 7-6(5), and the 20th of her career—on the 20th anniversary of the tournament.

Rybakina was, naturally, disappointed to fall one win short, but credited her opponent.

“She’s a great champion. She’s fighting till the end. I mean, I have nothing to say. She played really good. It was a great match from both of us I think.

“I didn’t even expect a result like this. But I’m really proud of myself that I managed to play all these matches and beat such great players… it’s been an amazing week here.”

Halep was equally generous in her post-match press:

“I think these matches, sometimes it’s better if we finish like equal because I feel in a way sorry for her because she’s young and she wanted it so much. But I’m happy that I could do it. Each way, it’s been a great match.”

And she was delighted that the win came in Dubai in particular:

“Yeah, it’s very special to be in 2020, 20th anniversary of this tournament, 20th title. It’s pretty special. I just want to enjoy it. It’s very, very beautiful.

“[And] tomorrow morning I will go to Burj Al Arab. I’ve never been… I will have breakfast there to celebrate. I’m dreaming of that.”

She admitted, however, that she her legs were ‘very tired’, and she has indeed withdrawn from the big WTA event in Doha that begins tomorrow. Rybakina, though, is scheduled to play as No14 seed. How much she will have left after her achievements so far in 2020 remains to be seen. But she said:

“I wanted to play in Doha. We will see when I come there. I’m going to fly tomorrow, then already on Monday I have to play. I will try because, of course, I’m tired but I think that I can play this week also—then I will have some rest.”

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