INDIAN WELLS, CA, USA - The toughest opponent you will ever play is yourself.
Halep trailed 6-2, 3-1, and Jankovic also served for the match at 5-4 in the second set. Halep's normally potent groundstroke game was misfiring, and simply hanging around had turned into her primary strategy.
When things go south, time is your biggest enemy.
Halep's game was underperforming, but she slowly came out of her funk towards the end of the second set, hoping somehow, someway, something would fall her way.
The match quickly developed into a battle of nerves - the kind that freezes footwork, power and the mind. It comes mainly from mentally reaching for the finish line, focusing on the end result instead of the small steps required to get there.
At the start of the match, Halep was clearly her own worst enemy, missing early and often. Halep was broken in the opening game, and you could tell straight away her "A" game had not made it to the expansive desert stadium. She did break straight back, but relinquished a 40-0 lead at 2-2, and was broken again. Halep failed to convert two break points in the following game, and when she missed a forehand wide to trail 2-4, her racket left her hand hard in disgust.
Jankovic's smart game plan of attacking short balls worked perfectly in the opening set, as she won 72 percent (8/11) finishing at the net. Halep committed 18 unforced errors in the opening set, and her tormented mind was not finding strategic answers to get back into the match. Jankovic's backhand down the line was paying big dividends, and Halep was reacting to the superior court position and game plan of her opponent.
Then 6-2, 3-1 rolled around, and Jankovic simply got tight. It happens to everyone who has ever picked up a racket, and the internal battle becomes all-consuming.
Up to this point, the Serb's first serve was a rock, winning 83 percent (20/24) in dominant fashion. But once her focus shifted too heavily from the service box to the scoreboard, she made only one first serve at 3-2 to lose the game to love. Her first serve points won fell off a cliff in sets two and three, only winning 50 percent and 40 percent respectively.
Serving at 6-2, 4-3 with a break again, Jankovic made her first serve in the opening two points, and quickly led 30-0. Then two passive double faults clearly signaled the internal struggle she was dealing with. Jankovic did lead 40-30, serving for a valuable 5-3 lead, but threw in another nervous double fault.
Halep seized the moment, rifling a backhand down the line winner to level the second set at 4-4. Playing from behind was much easier on the brain in this match than playing from in front.
Halep lost her serve at 4-4, but fortunately she didn't lose her mind. With Jankovic serving at 5-4, 30-30, Halep played a patient, gutsy point, defending at the start of the point and finished with a forehand winner off a high ball that Jankovic was hoping would extract an error. Halep crushed another big forehand on the next point, forcing a backhand error from the Serb, and hanging around was proving to be a valid tactic. Halep clinched the second set by breaking down Jankovic's backhand, forcing a weak slice into the net on set point.
Jankovic had ultimately played not to lose in the second set, and 27 unforced errors to Halep's 15 was the end result of the unfortunate mindset. In the third set, Jankovic was twice up a break of serve at 2-1 and 3-2, but couldn't conquer her emotions to finish the match.
Halep's victory was about overcoming herself as much as the person standing on the other side of the net. Focusing on the process, and pushing the finish line further into the distance works at every single level of the game, and delivered Halep the biggest title of her career.
Craig O'Shannessy (@BrainGameTennis) is the leading analyst for wtatennis.com throughout the 2015 season, utilizing SAP Data & Insights to uncover the patterns and percentages that dominate the game. Visit Craig's website at www.braingametennis.com for more expert strategy analysis.