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, Stuttgart's standards, Madrid’s magic moments, our retrospective heads to the Eternal City to recount some of the best matches from the recent editions of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia. For 2017, we revisit the classic championship match between Elina Svitolina and Simona Halep, won by the Ukrainian during a historic season.
HOW THEY GOT THERE: With three of the Top 5 seeds eliminated prior to the quarterfinals, opportunity knocked for No.6 seed Simona Halep and No.8 seed Elina Svitolina at the 2017Internazionali BNL d'Italia.
Svitolina's path to the final saw her stretched the distance in a pair of marathon tiebreaks against Alizé Cornet in the second round and Karolina Pliskova in the quarterfinals, and also dropped the first set in the third round against Germany's Mona Barthel before rallying for a 3-6, 6-0, 6-0 win.
In the top half of the draw, Halep benefitted from a 6-4, 6-0 victory by qualifier Anett Kontaveit over top seed Angelique Kerber in the second round, as she too dropped just one set en route to the championship match.
Riding high after winning the Mutua Madrid Open the previous week, for her first Premier Mandatory title, Halep needed three sets to beat Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the third round, and also beat noted clay court threats Laura Siegemund and Kiki Bertens in addition to Kontaveit to reach the final.
The meeting in the final was the second-ever match between the two players, and first in four years. En route to winning the title at the WTA Tournament of Champions, now called the WTA Elite Trophy, in Sofia, Bulgaria in 2013, Halep dominated Svitolina in a 6-1, 6-1 round-robin victory.
WHAT HAPPENED: The two players traded holds of serve over the first four games of the match, as Svitolina nonetheless was pressed to save three break points across her pair of service games.
Halep seemingly wrestled control of the match from there, as she won three straight games to lead 5-2, but trouble was soon on the horizon.
In the eighth game of the opening set, the Romanian suffered an injury scare when she turned her right ankle. Though she was able to continue the match, Halep's trademark foot speed and lateral movement were diminished as the contest wore on.
Continuing to battle, Halep ultimately served out the opening set at her second opportunity, and built a set and a break advantage at 6-4, 1-0.
With Halep still aiming for the elusive double of winning Madrid and Rome, last completed by Serena Williams in 2013, Svitolina worked her way into the second set's ensuing games, and took a break lead at both 3-1 and 5-3.
Though the No.6 seed managed to level the second set at 5-5 after saving a set point, Halep continued to be troubled by her right ankle, and would later take a medical timeout for treatment.
Svitolina captured eight of the last 10 points of the second set to win consecutive games and force a decider, and the No.8 seed sprinted through the final set from then on.
The No.8 seed ultimately won seven straight games from the pivotal moment that was 5-5 in the second set, losing just five points in the first four games. After failing to convert a break point — her lone chance in the set — to trail 5-0, Halep held serve to save the bagel, but the physical adversity and scoreboard deficit proved too much to overcome.
WHAT THEY SAID: Svitolina's victory earned her a fourth title in the first five months of 2017, as she had already triumphed in Dubai, Taipei and Istanbul. With Halep arriving in Rome as Madrid champion and on a winning streak, something had to give — and the competitive affair confirmed that for the winner.
"She won Madrid, and then coming here and playing some really good matches and good tennis. I saw she was playing and moving really good," Svitolina assessed after the match.
"It was kind of expected that she would be tired, so I was trying to stay there, to put the pressure, to be there in the right moment, to be ready and at least to give myself a chance to come back in the second set. I didn't play so bad in the first set. Just one, two balls that in the end changed the set. But I was trying to get back into the game.
"I needed to be patient, first of all, because she gets lots of balls back, makes you miss, like, some easy shots when you're under pressure. So this is her game. She really dominates playing very strong. I needed to be patient and waiting for my opportunity and then do something with it.
"I think it worked really good, because I really handled the pressure. [After the injury], she was still -- I mean, she moved okay in the second set, but I needed to put pressure and to show her that I'm there and I want to win so badly."
While disappointed in defeat, Halep told reporters after the match that she was proud of the effort she showed in a physical match that lasted over two hours, despite not being at 100 percent physically for much of it.
"At 5-3 in the second set, when I turned to hit inside out forehand, then I felt [the ankle] again. That's why I called to tape it, because I was scared not to do something worse," Halep said.
"I never like to give up during the match. I don't want to stop the matches. So I just wanted to try to win the second set. I couldn't.
"Physically I couldn't run, so that's why I didn't do anything in the third set."
Despite her injury concerns during the match, Halep was nonetheless complimentary of Svitolina's efforts and improvements since the pair's previous encounter nearly four years earlier.
"I don't remember exactly how she played in Sofia. I don't even remember how I played there," Halep said.
"She's a great player. She's very strong. We can see that she has won many tournaments this year... I think she has confidence. She feels the game, and she goes there without, like, nothing to lose. That's why she's playing great."
WHAT IT MEANT: Halep's words foreshadowed more to come for Svitolina, and victory in Rome was part of a historic 2017 for the Ukrainian. Coupled with titles in Dubai in February and Toronto in the summer, Svitolina became the first player to win three Premier 5-level titles since the event level was introduced in 2009.
Just two weeks later, however, Halep exacted a measure of revenge as she defeated Svitolina en route to a runner-up finish at Roland Garros. The Romanian rallied from a staggering 6-3, 5-1 deficit, and saved a match point in the ensuing second-set tiebreak, to pull off a thrilling 3-6, 7-6(6), 6-0 victory in the quarterfinals.
As both players have cemented their status in the upper echelons of the WTA rankings in recent years, their meetings on clay in 2017 were harbingers of a competitive head-to-head that has since unfolded between the two, both at the tournament and overall.
Twelve months later, the pair met again in the final in the Italian capital, and the same winner was crowned. After pulling off her comeback in 2017, Svitolina dominated Halep in 2018, surrendering just four games to repeat as champion.