Welcome back to Sunshine Stories, where wtatennis.com will take a look back at some of the most memorable matches from the North American spring over the past five years. Moving across the coast, we continue our Miami countdown with an early look at an exciting rivalry when Simona Halep took on 19-year-old Naomi Osaka in 2017.
2015: Serena Williams def. Simona Halep, semifinals
2016: Victoria Azarenka def. Garbine Muguruza, round of 16
HOW THEY GOT THERE: By the time World No.5 Simona Halep arrived in South Florida in 2017, she was looking for anything to get her season going. The Romanian was slow to start the year, struggling with a left knee injury that sent her crashing out of the Australian Open in the first round and heading into Miami, Halep had yet to win back-to-back matches.
Her opening match in Key Biscayne pitted her against a young Japanese up-and-comer in the second round, 19-year-old Naomi Osaka. Ranked No.49 in the world, Osaka was chipping her way into the WTA, and her big-hitting game was starting to grab attention.
Making this matchup even more exciting was the fact that these two players had history: one year prior, Osaka had pushed Halep to three sets in the third round of the French Open. The 2014 finalist emerged victorious, but that 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 scoreline meant that fans could be in for another blockbuster battle.
WHAT HAPPENED: It was a windy day in Miami when No.3 seed Halep took on Osaka, resulting in a tight opening set as both players adjusted to the conditions. Break points were scarce across the opening games as both players relied on their strong serves to get them into the rallies.
Osaka blinked first, her nerves seeming to get the best of her towards the end of the set. The Romanian pounced on the opportunities as Osaka’s first serve went missing, and grabbed the first break at 5-4. An emphatic hold to love sealed the first set for Halep, before a rain delay stopped play at the start of the second, with Osaka holding for 1-0. The teenager came back from the break firing, and broke serve to love immediately after the resumption of play.
Osaka ran out to a daunting 4-0 lead as she rolled through the second set, an increasingly frustrated Halep struggling against her opponent’s powerful groundstrokes. The Japanese player held off Halep, and fired an ace at set point to win it 6-2 and send them into a decider.
They were locked into battle in the third set, with Halep grabbing an early lead at 2-1 after a marathon third game. But Osaka replied a few games later, keeping Halep under pressure and earning a double fault to get the break back, taking a 3-2 lead.
But Halep found another gear late in the match, matching Osaka’s power with some of her own and firing winners off both wings. After another short rain delay, Halep continued to weather the Osaka storm, breaking twice more to take the match after an hour and 58 minutes to seal a place in the third round.
WHAT THEY SAID: Halep, who finished the match with three more winners than Osaka and two less unforced errors, nothing but praise for the rising star.
“Her game is strong, and she likes the ball next to her and she likes to hit,” Halep said in her post-match press conference. “But the wind was moving the ball a lot... So that's why I was expecting her to play not like she's playing normally, but she did very well.”
Halep also hailed 19-year-old Osaka’s huge potential, correctly tipping her opponent for future greatness.
“She's very young and I think her potential is big,” the Romanian said. “She will be a very good player at the top. She's powerful, and her serve is huge. Her forehand is like a bomb. She's moving pretty well.
"I see a very good future for her. I see her improving all the time. I think she's improved [from 2016].”
Osaka, used to playing under the radar in her breakthrough 2016, admitted afterward that it was difficult in her sophomore year as more and more players read into her game.
“I think there's more people that sort of know who I am now because last year I was kind of new,” she told press. “I feel like this year I'm still kind of new, but I'm a little bit more of a familiar face to the veteran players.”
WHAT IT MEANT: The victory emphatically snapped Halep’s four-tournament streak without back-to-back match wins, and the Romanian battled her way into her first quarterfinal of the year.
A tight, three-set loss to eventual champion Konta threatened to send Halep spiralling again as coach Darren Cahill, frustrated with her defeated on-court mentality, abruptly left her coaching team. But the experience proved to be a wake-up call for the Romanian, whose mental turnaround had her soaring to new heights in 2017.
“I just felt that it was like a shock, because I lost the coach," Halep later told press in Paris. "So I have just to improve in this way, because he never had something to complain about my game and about the work that I do, because I'm working.
"But just with my attitude. I knew that is the only one thing that I have to change to have him back. So I work hard, and I changed.”
The experience boosted Halep’s confidence heading into a critical stage of the calendar: the European red clay season, Halep’s winningest stretch. She was in fine form as she reached the semifinals in Stuttgart, lifted the trophy in Madrid - for the second year in a row - and reached the final in Rome. It all culminated with a run to her second French Open final, losing out to Jelena Ostapenko in a shock three set defeat.
Still, Halep went on to reach two more finals - in Cincinnati and in Beijing - with the latter marking a major milestone: she finally reached the World No.1 ranking for the first time, and would finish out the year 2017 on top.
For her part, World No.49 Osaka was still one year away from turning the tennis world on its head - in 2018, she would famously win Indian Wells and then the US Open, cementing her spot among the world’s best. But in Miami against Halep, Osaka proved that she was one to watch and eager to show her quality on the game’s biggest stages.