PRAGUE, Czech Republic - No.1 seed Simona Halep picked up where she left off six months ago, winning her second straight title with a 6-2, 7-5 defeat of No.3 seed Elise Mertens in the Prague Open final.
The Romanian has now collected trophies in both her last tournament before the WTA Tour shutdown, in Dubai in February, and her first tournament since its resumption, with this week extending her winning streak to nine matches and counting. While Halep has had to battle to find her groove at times this week - needing a third-set tiebreak to survive Polona Hercog in the first round, having to come from a set and a break down in both second and third sets against Barbora Krejcikova in the second, and trailing compatriot Irina-Camelia Begu by a first-set break three times in the semifinals - today, the World No.2 hit top form to take a stranglehold over the contest.
Afterwards, Halep was thrilled to have completed a victorious week amidst the new coronavirus-safe protocols of the tour's resumption. "It was really tough to get back to official matches after such a long break," she told press. "The emotions after staying in the room for 10 days were not easy - but you know, I have to take the positives also, I was able to win the tournament which means a lot.
"I was a little worried at the beginning but here we felt very safe, and all the restructions and rules were respected - we can do tournaments like this week, I feel it's a big chance for us to participate again. It's very different and a little stressful and we have to adjust ourselves, but the fact that everyone was good these 10 days means that everything was really well done."
The 28-year-old is thus rewarded with her 21st career WTA trophy - the fifth-highest tally of active players behind only Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Kim Clijsters and Petra Kvitova - after inflicting a rare defeat in a title match on Mertens. The Belgian had won five of her six previous career WTA finals coming into today's match, including her only win in four prior encounters with Halep at Doha 2019. But over the course of one hour and 33 minutes, Halep resumed her authority over the rivalry to post her second victory over Mertens this year, following their fourth-round clash at the Australian Open in January.
Blazing a series of backhand winners down the line, Mertens demonstrated some of her formidable final form straight out of the blocks to break for a 2-0 lead. But Halep was swiftly able to overturn this deficit, raising her aggression and intensity levels before coming through a pair of key multi-deuce mini-tussles as she reeled off a 'hidden bagel' to snatch the set, and ultimately seven games on the trot.
The former World No.1's return was the crucial shot in her arsenal. Boldly taking the Mertens delivery on whenever possible, Halep's ability to send her responses to the far corners and lines of the court immediately put the Belgian on the defensive, and she was sharp in putting the finishing touches to her putaways. Having edged ahead 3-2 by upping the ante, the two-time major champion also demonstrated her superiority on big points, escaping a 0-40 hole on her own serve by relentlessly breaking down the Mertens forehand before preventing the World No.23 from essaying an identical Houdini act in the next game: instead, a bruising pair of backhands sealed Halep's sixth break point and a 5-2 lead.
By now, Halep was also successfully holding Mertens at bay in the contest's more gruelling exchanges as well, showcasing stellar defence-to-offence work en route to serving out the set and continuing to break down the US Open quarterfinalist's normally consistent groundstrokes to break immediately in the second set. Mertens would finish with an uncharacteristic 32 unforced errors to 20 winners, while Halep was superior in both categories with 21 winners to 17 unforced errors.
"I'm very pleased about the way I was adjusting my game to her game," assessed Halep afterwards. "At the beginning I was hitting too strong, too flat and she was quicker than me and playing closer to the baseline. I tried to change the rhythm, played a little bit higher and further from her body, and it was much better."
Mustering some resistance and upping her own pace, Mertens was able to find a flurry of winners to break Halep back and halt the Wimbledon champion's run of games. But more often than not, Halep would have the answers. When Mertens pounded her hardest winners of the day for a 0-30 opening on the Wimbledon champion's serve in the sixth game, Halep simply responded to a similarly ferocious forehand on the next point by redirecting it for a winning crosscourt angle, going on to escape danger and hold. A sprinkling of double faults did not help Mertens' cause: a fourth came down break point in the fifth game, putting Halep up a break again.
Halep had lost the 2019 Doha final to Mertens from a set and a break up, and as Mertens valiantly clung on that prospect reared its head again. From 2-4 down, the 24-year-old pegged Halep back to 4-4 and, after saving a break point in the ninth game, moved to within three points of forcing a decider as she held for 5-4.
Afterwards, Halep explained that she had felt fatigued from the rigors of her first week back. "In the second set I was 4-2 up, but I was dead," she laughed. "I was tired, I couldn't move very well - but again today mentally I was really strong, and that's why I was able to win in two sets."
At the business end of the set, though, it was the Australian Open semifinalist's turn to buckle down. A sixth double fault from Mertens opened the door for Halep at 5-5, who forced her way through with impeccable, relentless baseline offence. Serving for the title, a marvellous backhand winner down the line that landed in the corner of the court set up two championship points, and Halep would seal the first with a heavy off forehand that drew the error from her opponent.