DUBAI, UAE -- No.1 seed Simona Halep was forced to the brink, but battled to a hard-earned second Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships title, as the Romanian fought back from a set down to overcome rising Kazakh Elena Rybakina, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(5) in Saturday night’s classic final.
"It feels great that I could win it," Halep said, during her post-match press conference. "Actually, it was amazing. [Rybakina] fought till the end. She didn't give up any balls. It was really tough mentally. The pressure was very high. But I want it badly, so that's why I fought till the end."
Reigning Wimbledon champion Halep, who also hoisted the Dubai trophy in 2015, stormed back from a break down at 3-1 in the final set to clinch her 20th career WTA singles title after nearly two-and-a-half hours of unpredictable play.
"It's very special to be in 2020, 20th anniversary of this tournament, 20th title," an elated Halep stated. "It's pretty special. I just want to enjoy it. It's very, very beautiful."
World No.2 Halep notched her first title of the season as she approaches her 318th consecutive week in the Top 10 -- the tenth-longest streak in WTA history. She also earned redemption from her only previous meeting with Rybakina, where the Romanian was forced to retire in the first set of their 2019 Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open encounter due to a lower back injury.
"She's strong," Halep said about her vanquished foe. "She has a huge serve. She's tall. She has power. I think she's really good to get into the top 10 very soon."
"[Rybakina is] moving well, even if she's very tall," Halep continued. "Her ball doesn't jump that much. It's really tough to find the length of the ball. The shot, cross backhand, is amazing. She can go also down the line. I think she's at the highest confidence level. I think everything she hits, it's really good now."
With her 20th title, Halep has drawn level with Victoria Azarenka in sixth place on the list of active title winners (behind Serena and Venus Williams, Kim Clijsters, Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova).
"I've done a lot of results, many results these six, seven years," said Halep. "I'm staying here in the top 5, top 10, which is not easy. I'm proud of my job. Also this tournament gives me confidence that I'm still there."
Despite the loss, Rybakina, who was in her fourth final out of five events this season, will continue to move up the rankings, as she is projected to reach No.17 on Monday's new rankings, up two spots from her current career-high position of No.19.
After a tight first game, the nerveless power of Rybakina allowed her to edge ahead as the first set took shape. Halep found herself in danger on serve in the second game of the match, having to save a break point, though the Romanian got herself out of trouble on that occasion.
However, at 3-2, Halep let a 40-15 lead slip away as exceptional returning by the Kazakh pulled to another break point. In that instance, Rybakina was ceded the break after a long forehand miscue by Halep, as the unseeded player took a crucial 4-2 lead. The Kazakh was not overwhelmed by her first big advantage, using strong serving to move ahead 5-2.
After holding at love for 5-3, Halep finally had chances on the Rybakina serve, withstanding two set points before clutching two break points. However, Rybakina calmly batted those break points away with an ace and an error-forcing winner, and claimed a third set point after a wide return by Halep. There, another wide return by the top seed gave Rybakina a stirring one-set lead.
Halep, though, was undaunted, and after erasing a break point in the first game of the second set, the Romanian crept ahead. Halep fired a forehand winner for triple break point at 2-1, and after a forehand miscue by the Kazakh followed, the former champion had earned her first break of the night and a 3-1 lead. An ace helped the top seed close out another game and a sturdy 4-1 lead.
Rybakina, however, would keep working for a straight-set win, staving off two break points to hold for 4-2, then getting back on serve at 4-3 after an error-laden game from Halep. Despite that stumble, Halep took command in the set once more, converting her fourth break point of a massive game filled with grueling rallies to slide ahead 5-3.
Serving to level the match, Halep found a much-needed ace at 30-30, giving herself a set point. There, a rally forehand forced an error from Rybakina, and the combatants were deadlocked at one set apiece.
Rybakina, though, clutched the upper hand early in the decider, gritting out a tough service hold for 2-1, then earning a break point in the next game with a huge return off of a Halep second serve. Halep was pressured into a double fault in the next point, and Rybakina was leading by a break at 3-1 in the final set.
Errors by the Kazakh in the very next game gave Halep the break back immediately, though, and the Romanian kept herself on serve until she was able to break Rybakina once more, forcing errors with outstanding defense for a 6-5 lead.
Serving for the match in that game, though, Halep was never able to reach match point, as powerful hitting by the young Kazakh led the topsy-turvy tilt to its inexorable conclusion -- a decisive final-set tiebreak.
In the breaker, Rybakina walloped another huge return off a second serve to go up 4-3, but Halep immediately got the minibreak back with a vicious forehand winner. Eventually, Halep claimed the only match point after a wide Rybakina backhand, which she converted to polish off a tiring tilt and notch a noteworthy 20th WTA singles title.