Rome Premier 2020: Third time lucky for Halep, who wins after Pliskova retirement
Halep on French Open hopes: “I will just try to be happy, take the positives from this tournament, and go there smiling!"
No matter how happy the tennis tour has been to get back onto the courts after its five-month lockdown, there is no denying the challenge of the back-to-front schedule that has been forced on the players.
Never before has the US Open swing preceded the French Open swing, and forced a switch in time-zone, surface, and conditions in such a tight time-frame.
The stresses and strains on the body of returning to top-flight competition has been hard enough on its own, especially taken alongside the constraints on travel between countries and also within tournament bubbles. No fans to lift the spirits, or to create the usual vibrant atmosphere, and no social life beyond the confines of hotel bedrooms and the tennis site itself.
So the Cincinnati/US Open double-header was played without several top-10 players: No1 Ash Barty, No2 Simona Halep, No6 Elina Svitolina, No7 Bianca Andreescu, No8 Kiki Bertens, and No10 Belinda Bencic all missing.
But several of them, though, did return to the fray this week on Europe’s clay, where the Rome/Roland Garros double-header that is usually played in May/June, got the second phase of the post-COVID season under way.
And there were also some key big names who went hell-for-leather on both sides of the Atlantic. The standout has been Victoria Azarenka, who went on a 12-match winning streak to win Cincinnati and make the final of the US Open, and then days later, took on Venus Williams in the first round of Rome. And she made it all the way to the quarters before being stopped by Garbine Muguruza, who had more in the tank and reached the semis before losing in three sets to Halep.
Karolina Pliskova also made the switch from a less-than-ideal hard-court appearance in New York to hit the Rome draw as No2 seed. There, she was defending champion, and though her tall powerful game is built around her big serve, she was soon proving herself as one of the women to beat on the red stuff.
Both Azarenka and Muguruza made deep runs—all credit to them on the fitness front—but Pliskova made it to the final, where one of the tour’s most successful clay exponents, top seed Halep, awaited her for a 12th encounter.
But which former No1 would lift the trophy in front of the privileged handful of fans who had been allowed into the Foro Italico for the last two days of competition?
In the event, the signs for Pliskova were not good from the first, as she arrived on court with her left thigh heavily strapped. That tightness rebounded onto her serve, the pivotal element in her game, and she was immediately under pressure.
Halep broke three times to lead 5-0, and after 20 minutes, she served it out, 6-0, with 25 of the 34 points to her name.
Pliskova then took some treatment to her lower back, but the defending champion looked dreadfully downcast, and no wonder: She had not managed a single ace, not even a single winner, in the opening set.
Halep scored an immediate break in the second set, too, but Pliskova, perhaps buoyed up by some cheers of encouragement from the fans, fired off two outright winners against the Halep serve and broke back, her first game on the board.
But after an immediate break back by Halep, there was only one outcome: Pliskova had to call it a day at 1-2, tapped rackets with her opponent, and wiped away the tears.
Desperately unlucky for Pliskova, of course, but it was third time lucky for Halep, who has now won one of the biggest clay titles on the tour after two runner-up trophies.
It also marks her 14th match-win in a row, her third straight title in this truncated year of tournaments, after Dubai and Prague.
And to give some context to Halep’s achievements, this ninth clay title is matched only by the sisters Williams: Venus also has nine, Serena 13. And since Halep won the first of her 21 career titles, in 2013, only Serena Williams has won more, 27 of them.
What is more, the popular Romanian has now enjoyed well over six years inside the top 10, the longest streak among active players. And with defending Roland Garros champion Barty choosing not to defend her title, the draw has opened still more for Halep to gain points in Paris and close the gap on that No1 ranking.
It does, in any case, bode well for the former French Open champion’s hopes in Paris, with Naomi Osaka and Andreescu also absent. Surely, too, their New York/Rome endeavours have taken a toll on Azarenka, Muguruza and Pliskova.
But Halep refused to be drawn on her hopes of winning in Paris just yet.
“Well it’s just another tournament. I’m not going to put pressure on myself. I’ve played really well this year, won three titles already, I’ve played well on clay and I am confident. So I’m not going to let myself be bothered about the weather, or anything like that. I will just try to be happy and take the positives from this tournament—and go there smiling!
“The dream that every player has is to win a Grand Slam, so my dream is to do that of course, but I’m not thinking that far.”
Not that she has long to wait: the main draw begins in under a week’s time.