ROME, Italy - Former World No.1 Simona Halep hoisted her first Internazionali BNL d'Italia trophy after two previous runner-up finishes, earning the win after defending champion and longtime rival Karolina Pliskova was forced to retire due to a left thigh injury.
"I've finally won it," Halep said after the match. "I love this tournament, and I play well here almost every year - besides last year, of course. I started my rise up the rankings at this tournament in 2013, so I've always dreamed of having this title. I'm really happy that it happened today."
Halep reached back-to-back finals in Rome back in 2017 and 2018, bounded through the opening set, and emerged on top of an exchange of breaks early in the second set when the No.2 seed, who had taken a brief medical timeout between sets, bowed out after 32 minutes on Court Centrale.
"I played so many matches here over the years, and I love playing on these courts. I just want to smile now. I'm really enjoying it."
Halep and Pliskova were facing off for the 12th time in their careers, and though the Romanian led the overall head-to-head prior to the final, it was Pliskova who had won three of their last four meetings, including their most recent clay court clash at the 2018 Mutua Madrid Open - where Halep had been two-time defending champion.
"I remember the match we played in Shenzhen last year. I was leading there and had my chances, but I didn't take them. I made some wrong plays there. We analyzed that, and today, everything I had in my head was to be quick, not give her time to hit because she has very powerful shots, and to move her. I did that, and did it very well. Today, I felt my game was 100% in my hands.
"She has a strong serve, her forehand and backhand are unbelievable. She has all the shots, and the courts here are maybe a little faster than other clay courts, so that's why she won last year and is feeling so good."
Top seed at the Foro Italico, Halep battled through a tense semifinal against fellow former World No.1 and Roland Garros champion Garbiñe Muguruza, while Pliskova eased past countrywoman Marketa Vondrousova.
As Monday's final got underway, however, Pliskova emerged with a visibly wrapped left thigh and lacking for rhythm on her first serve, making just 50% in her first two service games and throwing in a double fault to fall behind a surprising double break.
"I hope to be ready for Roland Garros," Pliskova said after the match. "There's still a week, so I think that's plenty of time. I could possibly play on Sunday, but within a few days, I hope they will help. I have to see a doctor make sure it's not too severe of an injury. I think it's from playing so many tough matches in a row. Even if they weren't all three-set matches, they were still on clay, which is quite a fast switch from hardcourts. The sliding and running in the last two matches, I began to feel it against Mertens and it grew with every day. Had yesterday's match went three sets, I thought it would have been very difficult for me.
"Overnight, it started to really not feel good, and so I was thinking about whether I should play at all. You want to go and try, though it probably didn't look so good. Huge credit to Simona, though, because against anyone else, maybe it would have been possible, but she doesn't give you much for me, so I would have had to be 100%.
"From this week, I can take positives from all the matches I played except this one. I wasn't really there; the game and legs weren't there either. I think this was more fighting with myself and the injury. Otherwise, I was playing quite good tennis all week, beating good players on clay, which is always good before a big tournament in Paris. Most importantly, I had a lot of matches, unlike in America, where I didn't have many."
Looking to wrest control from Halep, the No.2 seed took a quick 0-40 lead of her own, only for the reigning Wimbledon champion to find another gear and win an astounding 13 of 14 points - 11 in a row at one point - as she slapped away a forehand winner to clinch the opening set.
Pliskova visited with the physio ahead of the second set and showed signs of life as she got on the board to even things at one game apiece, but Haep was undeterred, moving ahead by a break once more when the Czech powerhouse decided she could no longer continue.
"It's not the end of the tournament that you wish for, but I felt amazing in the first set and I was very confident that, even if we kept playing, I would have chances to win the match. I don't take negatives from this. Of course, I feel sorry for her because an injury is an injury and that's never easy. Still, this trophy is mine now."
Despite the abrupt finish, Halep still managed nine winners to just five unforced errors, converting five of seven break point opportunities while Pliskova converted one of four. Looking to shorten points in the second set, Pliskova struck five winners in the second set alone after not making any in the opening set, but was clearly hampered as evidenced by 16 unforced errors.
Halep, who won the Prague Open title upon the tour's resumption from the pandemic-induced shutdown, is now on a 14-match winning streak, having also won her 20th career title at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships back in February.
"It's just another tournament," Halep said, looking ahead to Roland Garros, which she won in 2018. "I'm not going to put pressure on myself. I've played really well this year with three titles already. I've played so much on clay, so I feel confident and happy that I'll have a chance to play another Grand Slam this year. I'm not going to let myself be bothered by things like the weather. I'll just be happy to take positives from this tournament and go there smiling.
"It's a dream for everyone to win the Grand Slam tournament from the first day, so it's my dream as well, but I'm not thinking that far. I just want to go there, get used to the courts and the atmosphere, and try to win every match I play. Every match is a battle, so I'll be ready for it."