Tennis

Toronto | Halep sets up final with Haddad Maia

Simona Halep, the 15th seed at the National Bank Open presented by Rogers, battled past 7th-seeded Jessica Pegula to reach her 4th final in Canada, where she will face Beatriz Haddad Maia for the WTA 1000 title, who continued her stunning run in Toronto with a straight sets upset of Karolina Pliskova, the No 14 seed.

I changed a little bit the tactics. In the first set, it was a little bit too fast. She was hitting super strong and I didn’t feel the rhythm. Then I just calmed down, and I tried to just push her back a little bit more. Simona Halep

While many tipped Halep as a title contender this week, few had backed Haddad Maia as a likely bet, but the Brazilian outsider has fought her way past 4 seeds in her 5 matches, including stunning the World No 1 Iga Swiatek in the 3rd-round on Thursday.

Halep’s pathway has been easier, although she was well tested by Coco Gauff in the quarter-finals and dropped her first set of the week to Pegula on Saturday.

The former World No 1 from Romania, who won the 2016 and 2018 trophies in Canada, showed her return to form with her semi-final win, after having dropped out of the Top 10 in the rankings a year ago because to injury.

“We never played against each other,” Halep said. “So I didn’t really know what to expect.

“But it was a great fight. I’m really happy that I went through.

“Of course, I can improve,” Halep added. “But I’m building the confidence, I’m building the game, and I’m really happy that I’m in this position.”

The 30-year-old, who has won both the Roland Garros and Wimbledon titles, could return to 6th in the world if she beats Haddad Maia on Sunday.

Currently ranked 15, Halep saw her 373-week reign in the Top 10 end when she dropped out on 9 August, 2021.

Jessica Pegula ran away with the 1st set but could not stop Simona Halep’s determination to reach the final at the WTA 1000 in Toronto

© Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Halep needed 2 hours and 12 minutes to put away the American, who was the highest seed left in the draw, and reach her 18th career WTA 1000 final in search of her 9th title at the elite level.

Pegula raced through the opening set, using her penetrating flat groundstrokes combined with efficient work at the net to keep Halep pushed back behind the baseline so that her usually reliable backhand often broke down.

The Romanian turned the tables round early in the second, finding more consistent depth and using more spin to kick the ball out of Pegula’s strike zone.

“I changed a little bit the tactics,” said Halep, who broke the American twice to build a 4-1 lead. “In the first set, it was a little bit too fast. She was hitting super strong and I didn’t feel the rhythm.

“Then I just calmed down, and I tried to just push her back a little bit more.”

Serving at 4-2, Halep saved 4 break points to maintain her lead in a game decided by fine margins, as Pegula missed a stretch volley on a passing shot that could have drifted wide, and sending a drive wide by the merest of millimetres.

Halep closed out the set after 80 minutes to level but, in the decider, she fell behind serving at 1-2, down 0-40, although Pegula could not break through and, with the Romanian’s game now on song, the American buckled.

Having failing to convert on 4 break points, Pegula immediately was broken herself to love and, with a 3-2 lead and all the momentum, Halep built a double-break lead but she missed 2 match points on her opponent’s serve, swiping her racket angrily on the court as the American held for 4-5 in the third.

“The fire is back, it’s a good sign if I do that,” said the Romanian after the win put her into her 2nd final with coach Patrick Mouratoglou. “It looks like I’m fighting. It helps me sometimes. I don’t know if it’s always good or not, but it helps me.”

Halep clinched the win at her 3rd chance when Pegula hit the net with her return.

The Romanian coughed up a worrying 10 double-faults in the match, and served at just 60%, but she was able to save 12 of 17 break points on the day, while Pegula will rue her many missed opportunities, creating multiple break points in 3 games in the second set, and only breaking the once.

The victory is Halep’s 37th of the season, tying her with Ons Jabeur for the 2nd-most wins on tour.

The stats tell a tale that belies the quality of the match, with Halep making 42 errors to her 11 winners, and firing just 1 ace, while Pegula’s 21 winners, including 3 aces, offset 43 miscues, and between them, they failed to convert 20 break points.

These numbers fail to tell of the drama, with each combatant seeking to strike the ball past the other, and both possessing remarkable defensive and offensive skills.

Aiding Hale’\s efforts was the full-throated support of a crowd dotted with Romanian flags.

“They supported me like crazy today,” she said with a fond smile.

Unseeded Beatriz Haddad Maia has come through the field against the odds to reach the Toronto final with a straight sets win over Karolina Pliskova on Saturday night

© Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Later, unseeded Haddad Maia added the scalp of 2021 finalist Pliskova to her growing collection in her semi-final, effectively blunting the tall Czech’s serve and attacking game to win 6-4 7-6(7).

The Brazilian has now won 17 matches since June, when she landed the grass court titles in Birmingham and Nottingham, which took her to No 24 in the world, and she now is guaranteed to make the Top 20 next week.

The Brazilian also has gone an astounding 7-1 against Top 20 players this year, with 4 of those wins coming this week when she took out Leylah Fernandez, Swiatek, Belinda Bencic and now Pliskova, while her only loss to a Top 20 player in 2022 came at the hands of Halep at the Australian Open.

“I feel happy, it’s a special moment,” Haddad Maia said after her win on Saturday. “I had a very tough draw.

“I had to push myself, I played [through] a lot of tough moments.

“I was especially down in the match that I was not playing well, but I was mentally strong. That’s why I’m having the chance to play tomorrow against Simona in the final.”

Karolina Pliskova mounted a come-back challenge but could not get past Beatriz Haddad Maia on Saturday

© Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

In just over 2 hours the left-hander claimed her spot in the final in Toronto, beating Pliskova, a former World No 1, for a second time to take a 2-1 lead in their head-to-head.

A hot start by Haddad Maia that saw her jump out to a 5-1 lead was cooled off by last year’s runner-up Pliskova, who saved 3 set points at 5-3 and forced the Brazilian to serve for the set for a second time at 5-4, but Haddad Maia was up to the task, powering to a quick hold.

Pliskova, this week’s ace leader steered the momentum in her favour as she served her way into a 4-1 lead in the second but, at 5-3, as the Czech served for the set, Haddad Maia found a series of powerful groundstrokes when she needed them, pulling back on serve.

In the tiebreak, Haddad Maia could not hold onto mini-breaks at 3-2 and 5-4, and failed to convert a match point at 6-5.

The Brazilian then had to save a set point at 7-6 with a forehand winner, but on her second match point at 8-7, Pliskova double-faulted to concede the match.

Halep won her first 2 meetings with Haddad Maia, in the second round of 2017 Wimbledon and in the same round at this year’s Australian Open, but the Brazilian got a win over the Romania in their 3rd encounter, which she notched up on her way to this year’s Birmingham grass-court title.

“[Halep is] a champion,” Haddad Maia said. “She’s a person who works very hard.

“I know it will be a very tough battle, but I’m going to enjoy. I’m going to leave everything on the court.

“I will try to play aggressive. I learned a lot today because in the moments that I wasn’t too aggressive, [Pliskova] was playing better than me.

“ I want to improve that for tomorrow. So I’m going to try to enjoy, and play point by point.”

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