Simona Halep goes for her second Dubai title on Saturday, but the top seed must take down surging Kazakh, Elena Rybakina if she's to get over the line.
Halep vs Rybakina is live from Dubai on Saturday, 22 February from 7:00pm local time/ 3:00pm GMT
While Halep is contesting her first final of the season, Rybakina is into a championship match for a staggering fourth time in five tournaments this year, and will bid for her second title of 2020 when she faces Halep on Saturday.
Both ladies secured contrasting straight sets semi-final victories in Friday, with Rybakina battling to a 7-6 7-6 win over Petra Martic, and Halep cruising to a 6-2 6-0 victory over American qualifier, Jennifer Brady.
“It felt much better than previous matches,” Halep said after the match. “I played really well. Everything went in my side. I felt the ball great. I feel like I played the best match since I came here.”
Indeed, the Romanian was in supreme form on Friday. The world No. 2 had needed to fight back from a set down to beat Ons Jabeur and Aryna Sabalenka in her previous matches, but she had no such trouble on Friday, easing to victory inside 62 minutes.
Brady had done very well to reach the last four, taking down top-20 players, Elina Svitolina, Marketa Vondrousova and Garbine Muguruza en route the semis, but she found Halep far too good on the day. Halep converted 76% of points on her first serve, saving the two break points she faced, both in her opening service game of the match. The Wimbledon champion hardly put a foot wrong, striking 16 winners to just 8 unforced errors.
“It’s fun when you feel the ball and when you can do anything you want,” said Halep. “Today it was one of those days, I could open the court easy. I felt like every time I hit the ball, I feel it.”
Halep is into her first final since last year’s Wimbledon triumph. The Romanian struggled after Wimbledon, making just one quarter final from her final six events in 2019, but she has made a more positive start to the new season. The 28-year-old opened with a quarter final in Adelaide, then a semi-final at the Australian Open, and now a final in Dubai. Can she take down Rybakina to claim her first title of the season?
Rybakina has been in tremendous form this season, reaching at least the final in four of the five events she’s played this year. She has put together another stunning week in Dubai, taking out three top-20 opposition to book her spot in another final.
Rybakina opened with a come-from-behind three-set victory over Australian Open champion, Sofia Kenin in the first round, before securing straight sets wins over Katerina Siniakova, Karolina Pliskova and Petra Martic to move into the final.
It has not been straightforward, but she has shown great battling qualities when required to keep up this remarkable run of results. She was down a break in both sets in her semi-final against Martic, and needed to save set points in each of the two sets, but she dug in to claw her way to a fine 7-6 7-6 victory.
“So tired, but happy!” said Rybakina after the match. “First set it was not easy because she plays really good. She has really good slices. Her serve, it’s not flat like I played with Pliskova for example. It’s completely different style of game. It was not easy to start against her. But I tried to work every point. Second set, I was 3-0 down, but I knew it’s going to be easier to win this set than play a third one. I wanted to win second so much.”
Rybakina broke Martic as the Croatian served for the opening set at 5-4 before going on to control most of the ensuing tie break. She carved out four set points at 6-2, and needed all four, holding off her more experienced opponent to take the breaker 7-5. The 20-year-old slipped to a 3-0 deficit at the start of the second set, but she fought her way to parity before dominating the tie break to close out an incredible 19th win of the season. She maintained impressive control against Martic, hitting 32 winners and just 23 unforced errors en route the two-hour 11-minute win.
Rybakina is bidding for her second title of the season, and the third of her career. Ranked 192nd at this time last year, the Kazakh has had a spectacular rise, jumping to 37th at the end of 2019 after winning her first title in Bucharest, reaching a final in Nanchang, semi-finals in s-Hertogenbosch and Luxembourg, and quarter finals in Istanbul, Wuhan and Linz.
She has raced to a 19-3 start in 2020, winning the Hobart title, and making finals in Shenzhen, St. Petersburg and now Dubai. The only event where she failed to reach the title match was the Australian Open, where she was beaten in the third round by top seed, Ashleigh Barty.
Halep and Rybakina have met once before, in Wuhan last year, when the Romanian retired hurt while trailing 5-4 in the opening set. The top seed will hope for a totally different outcome when they reunite in Dubai on Saturday.
“It’s amazing what [Rybakina’s] done already this year,” Halep stated. “I saw her a little bit during some matches.”
“She has a big serve… I have to pay attention on my return and to be like today: confident, aggressive if there is a chance, just fighting. It’s the best thing to do now.”
Rybakina has hardly put a foot wrong this year, but if there’s an emerging flaw, it would be that she’s lost two of the three finals she’s contested, although that would be overly hypercritical. Halep’s recent finals record isn’t great either- the Romanian has lost nine of her last 13.
Rybakina has been in the woman in form this year, and will go into the final with loads of confidence, but Halep found some great form herself against Brady in the semis. I’m tempted to go for the more experienced Romanian here. If the top seed produces her best tennis, I feel she’s got the athleticism and defence to counter Rybakina’s advances, and the shot-making to force the Kazakh on the back foot.