CINCINNATI, OH, USA - For the third time this season, World No.2 Simona Halep will play a match for the No.1 ranking. On Sunday, the 25-year-old Romanian is bidding to become the 24th woman to hold the WTA No.1 ranking when she faces Wimbledon champion and World No.6 Garbiñe Muguruza in the final at the Western & Southern Open.
With her semifinal win, Halep sits just five points behind World No.1 Karolina Pliskova, who lost to Muguruza in the earlier semifinal. With this week's Cincinnati results, Pliskova sits with 6,390 points. Heading into Sunday's final, Halep holds 6,385 points. The title would move her to 6,700 points.
"Before the match I talked to my brother by SMS, asking, 'Is it true that I am five points away if I win the match?' He said, 'Yes.' I said, It's unbelievable. Five points, can you believe it?"
Halep has had two chances to ascend to the No.1 ranking over the last two Slams. She was three games away from winning her first major title at Roland Garros, which would have also moved her to No.1, but lost in three sets to Jelena Ostapenko. At Wimbledon, a win over Johanna Konta in the quarterfinals would have pushed her past current No.1 Pliskova, coming within two points of the match but eventually falling in three sets. Halep has yet to lose a set in Cincinnati all week.
"It's the third time," Halep said with a grin. "It is either lucky or just an experience again. So we will see."
Halep has been open about her desperate desire to become the first Romanian woman to hold the No.1 ranking. During the grass court season she said she felt it in her "soul" and was frustrated to just fall short. This time she has taken a more relaxed approach.
"I'm more relaxed now," she said after her Cincinnati semifinal win over Sloane Stephens. "So I'm not thinking about that. I know that if I keep this level, it's gonna come. If not tomorrow, maybe in the next few weeks. But I'm much better now. Hopefully, I can play better."
Disheartened but not discouraged by her previous failed attempts to close out the top ranking, Halep has rebounded well from both disappointments. This week in Cincinnati she advanced to her sixth semifinal of the season and third final. After an injury-affected start to the year due to a knee injury, Halep has been strong on the summer hard-courts, compiling a 9-2 record over three events in Washington D.C., Toronto, and now Cincinnati.
This week she avenged her heartbreaking loss to Konta, playing a more aggressive counter-punching game to beat the Brit in straight sets and then replicated the effort in her best match of the week, against Stephens.
"I want to win it," Halep said. "So if it's gonna be just to win a match and to get [No.1], it's going to be more special and nicer for me. Everyone can get to No. 1 now. The ranking is close. So it depends on anyone.
"But I am so close. I really want it. So we will see."
Muguruza and Halep have split their two matches, but it was the Spaniard who has edged out the Romanian on hard court, while Halep won on clay. Sunday's showdown will be their first meeting since 2015, in Stuttgart. Muguruza also beat Halep on hard court at the Fed Cup in 2015.
"It was a very long time that I last played with Halep, but she's playing very good," Muguruza said after her strong semifinal win over Pliskova. "She's strong and she has had a lot of matches. I saw her a little bit these days, so tough. Solid opponent."
Halep and Muguruza both go into Sunday's final bidding for their second titles of the season. Muguruza won her first title since the 2016 French Open when she won Wimbledon last month, while Halep tallied her only title of the year in a successful defense at the Madrid Open.
Muguruza has done well to quiet any doubts about whether she could hold her Wimbledon-winning form over the summer. She is 8-2 on hard courts this summer and is contesting her first non-Slam final since winning the 2015 China Open. En route to the final, Muguruza saved match points to beat Madison Keys 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(3) in the quarterfinals, her first win over the American, and then edged Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-2, 5-7, 7-5 in one of the best matches of the tournament. But she saved her best performance of the week for No.1 Pliskova, tallying her third straight win over a World No.1.
"I don't think I'm playing more freely," Muguruza said. "I agree that [Wimbledon] helps my confidence, but it's not playing freely, because you always have pressure. If you don't win, you have pressure because you want to win, and if you win, you have pressure because you want to not lose.
"It's always tricky. But for sure [I have] confidence in dealing with these tough matches and difficult situations."
It will be a classic contrast of Muguruza's power-game and Halep's counter-punching on Sunday, with the winner rising to No.1 in the Porsche Race to Singapore Leaderboard.
"I played few times against her, and I know she's very aggressive," Halep said. "She stays close to the baseline, and she hits everything. I have just to respond fast and be strong with my legs, move well, and just to push her back.
"I'll try everything tomorrow."