ROME, Italy – No.1 seed Simona Halep moved into the final of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia for the third time as she overcame No.9 seed Garbiñe Muguruza, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 in two hours 14 minutes as a smattering of spectators were allowed access for the first time since the Tour was suspended due to Covid-19.
It was the WTA World No.2’s third successive victory over her Spanish rival on clay as she gained a measure of revenge from the defeat she suffered at the same stage of the Australian Open in January.
Halep, meanwhile, has now won all of her last 13 matches, having picked up titles in Dubai and Prague either side of the Tour suspension.
She dominated the opening set but folded in the latter part of the second under pressure from her hard-hitting opponent but recomposed herself to win the third after a dogged battle from her opponent.
"She's a very, very difficult player and a good player," Halep said when asked about her opponent. "It's always a good feeling when I win against her.
"I feel confident now that I was able to win this match. I know I had so many chances to maybe finish it a little bit faster and easier, but as we saw, she doesn't give up.
"I'm happy that I was a little bit stronger and I was more aggressive when I needed to be."
Runner-up in Rome in 2017 and 2018, Halep sought to take advantage of any stiff legs that Muguruza might have had after a draining three-set victory over Victoria Azarenka on Saturday. A big forehand winner was a statement of intent from the 28-year-old, and when the WTA World No.17 went long in the following point, she had an immediate break.
The quality of the play from both players in the opening half hour was of a standard befitting two former Roland Garros champions, though it was Halep who held the edge, often finding a winner at a clutch moment. This was exemplified as she batted off a break point in the second game with a forehand down the line.
Both players were being forced to work hard to protect their serve, and when the second break came, it do so in the favor of Halep. Unforced errors from Muguruza gave the two-time Grand Slam champion an opening, which was taken as she rolled a backhand winner down the line.
Although the 26-year-old won one of the breaks back, her vulnerability on serve told as Halep sealed the set.
Two straightforward holds began the second set before Muguruza, who left the court to receive treatment on a lower back injury after the opener, worked the first break point only for Halep to respond.
Indeed, it was the Romanian who worked her way into the ascendancy once more. The catalyst was a seemingly impossible backhand down the line from a position out wide on the stretch, which created two break points. Under pressure, the Muruguza serve broke down with a double fault.
Backed into a corner, the 2016 French Open winner adopted a high-risk approach that yielded a break, and though she saw the following game slip away from her due to another double fault, her heavy hitting dragged her back level at 4-4.
Halep then twice went long to give up her serve, and Muguruza competed her task of squaring the match by serving out to love.
With the momentum of the match moving away from her, Halep wrestled it back at the beginning of the decider. First, she saved a break point before holding serve, arresting a run of four games against here, then she broke her opponent courtesy of a double fault.
Two more games following in quick succession as she maintained an aggressive outlook, but there was to be a twist as Muguruza fought back from a seemingly impossible situation.
Down 1-5, she dug her heels in and produced an array of fine winners, capped by a tremendous game to break and draw the match back to 4-5.
Serving to stay in the match, though, she hit successive double faults to present the victory to Halep, who will now face either Karolina Pliskova or Marketa Vondrousova as she aims to close out her first title in the Italian capital.
"Thank God I don't play Svitolina because I've already lost two times against her," Halep joked. "I really want to win this title, but it's always tough."