Welcome back to Clay Chronicles, where wtatennis.com will take a look back at some of the most memorable matches from the clay seasons of the past five years. After recapping Charleston's classics and Stuttgart's standards, our retrospective now heads to Madrid, Spain to recount some of the best matches from recent editions of the Mutua Madrid Open. Continuing the countdown is Simona Halep's epic encounter against rising Kristina Mladenovic in the lengthy 2017 final, where the Romanian claimed a three-set victory to defend her title.
HOW THEY GOT THERE: Coming into the 2017 edition, Simona Halep knew how to win at the Mutua Madrid Open. The Romanian had clinched her first Madrid title the year before, dropping only one set en route to hoisting the trophy. Her title defense had also put her into the final, with 11 straight match-wins at the event up to the 2017 championship match.
However, Halep's road to the 2017 final had been rockier. Indeed, she had started the year slowly, struggling with a knee injury, and had seen her ranking dip from No.4 to No.8 as the Premier Mandatory event began.
Seeded No.3 this time around, Halep had been extremely lucky to survive the second round, where she trailed Roberta Vinci by 2-5 in the final set before recovering and rallying to defeat the Italian in a final-set tiebreak.
Halep's follow-up match had also been tricky before she ousted No.16 seed Samantha Stosur in another three-set tussle. Nevertheless, after reaching the quarterfinals, Halep rounded into form, dispatching CoCo Vandeweghe and Anastasija Sevastova in straight sets to reach her second consecutive final in the Spanish capital.
"Here for me is special because I won last year," Halep told the press, after her narrow win over Vinci. "I played one final before. I feel pretty good on this court. I played my best tennis last year at this tournament. I'm trying just to repeat it. It's not going to be easy."
While Halep had booked a finalist spot for the third time in four years, her opponent in the championship match was much less experienced at that stage -- but had been on the rise in 2017. Kristina Mladenovic had started the year outside the Top 40, but by May, the Frenchwoman had already posted seasonal results that made her one to watch for the rest of the annual campaign.
Despite coming into the event with a 1-3 win-loss record in Madrid main-draw showings, Mladenovic surely had to have been buoyed by winning her first WTA singles title at St. Petersburg in February, and subsequent finals at Acapulco and Stuttgart and a semifinal run in Indian Wells put her squarely as the No.14 seed by the time the Madrid draw was made.
Similarly to Halep, Mladenovic came through a squeaker in the second round, where she got by Lauren Davis via final-set tiebreak after almost two-and-a-half hours. Then, much like Halep, Mladenovic breezed through the latter stages of the week up to the final, winning her next three matches in straight sets.
"Feels like everybody's following much more this tournament than the others, like fans-wise, entertainment," Mladenovic told the media, when asked to compare the biggest final of her career to her earlier exploits in 2017. "And also the draw was bigger, I think. I had extra matches compared to the other tournaments where I reached the final.
"That's the stages you really want to be at. When you see those big names, that stays in the tournament, also on the men's side, you feel like you're quite special."
WHAT HAPPENED: Despite having a career-best year in 2017, Mladenovic had been a dangerous player for a number of seasons, particularly for Halep. The Frenchwoman came into the Mutua Madrid Open final with a 3-1 lead in their head-to-head, including a straight-set victory in the third round at Indian Wells earlier in the season.
"I'm expecting a tough match," Mladenovic said, following her semifinal win over No.8 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova. "Even though I'm leading in our head-to-head, we never played on clay, I think. That's going to be a brand-new challenge for me, especially that she's more used to being in a finals of such a big events than me, especially here in Madrid."
Mladenovic continued to play well against Halep in the early going, twice pulling ahead by a break and serving for the opening frame at 5-4. The defending champion, though, was unwilling to let her title slip away, and Halep dug in, claming the final four games of the first set to steal the one-set lead 7-5.
Halep took an early 2-0 lead in the second set as well, but Mladenovic got back on serve in the next game. There were no more break points for the remainder of the set, as both players held serve with relative ease en route to a tiebreak. There, Mladenovic took an early 3-0 lead and did not relinquish her advantage, leveling the match at a set apiece after notching the breaker 7-5.
With two challenging hour-long sets in the rearview mirror, it was anyone's guess who would grit out the decider. At crunch time, though, the defending champion steeled herself. Halep took the early lead, breaking for 2-1 and consolidating for a 3-1 advantage. Mladenovic, meanwhile, began to struggle with lower back pain, but did not discuss that after the match.
A protracted Mladenovic service game at 4-2 proved to be the decisive factor; the Frenchwoman saved two break points but not a third, and Halep broke for a 5-2 lead. The Romanian served out the match at love in the very next game, claiming her second straight title and her 12th straight match-win in Madrid -- her first title of the season after an epic two-and-three-quarters hours.
WHAT THEY SAID: "I feel great that I could defend this title," Halep told the press, after the final. "It means a lot because it's very big and gives me confidence for the bigger tournaments."
"I feel that actually I have the game to win big tournaments, I have just to be consistent mentally," Halep added, following the grueling win. "Today I struggled a little bit. But in the end, I was stronger. I was better mentally. I'm proud actually that I could stay there focused."
Halep, who said Mladenovic "played unbelievable," looked ahead to the rest of the season with optimism. "On clay court, I feel that I always have a chance to make big results," said the Romanian. "I know that in 2014 I did also finals in Roland Garros.
"Now in this moment I feel that I'm able to do that again, but I don't know how is going to be. Of course, I'm thinking about the next days, next weeks, but I'm not thinking about the results because I feel better when I'm not thinking. The pressure is not negative pressure, it's positive pressure now. I want to keep this."
Mladenovic agreed with Halep about the final's quality. "Honestly, this final was quite amazing," the rising star told the press, after the match.
"What we did today, with Simona on the court, battling for two hours and a half in the last match of the tournament, knowing we for sure had both of us a long and tiring tournament to reach the final," Mladenovic added. "And somehow to push even more to produce probably the best tennis from both of us for the entire tournament."
"I'm not even sure what points I played out there during the [second-set] tiebreaker," Mladenovic exclaimed. "I was just trying to hang in there and give myself a chance to play a third set, entertain everybody."
WHAT IT MEANT: As she had hoped, Halep continued to post an excellent clay-court season after her title run in Madrid, reaching finals at Rome and Roland Garros. At both of those events, though, the Romanian was unable to take home the champion's trophy, falling to Elina Svitolina in Rome and being stunned by Jelena Ostapenko at the clay-court Grand Slam event in Paris.
Madrid would prove to be Halep's lone WTA singles title of the season, but her consistency throughout the season served her well, and after reaching the final in Beijing in October, she ascended to World No.1 for the first time. Halep would finish the 2017 season at World No.1, and in 2018, she earned the biggest clay-court title of her career, and her first Grand Slam title, at Roland Garros.
As for Mladenovic, making her first-ever Premier Mandatory final in Madrid set her up as a favorite for a deep run at her home Grand Slam in Paris. At Roland Garros, the Frenchwoman reached the quarterfinals, beating Sara Errani and Garbine Muguruza on the way to the last eight, where she lost to two-time semifinalist Timea Bacsinszky.
The second half of the 2017 season, though, proved very challenging for Mladenovic. After the hot start to the year, the French player struggled with injuries and a loss of form, and she lost her final 12 matches of the season. Nevertheless, Mladenovic hit a new milestone due to her incredible first half of the season, breaking into the Top 10 for the first time in her career in October.