2014 champion Simona Halep is back in the Qatar Total Open final after defeating Elina Svitolina for the first time in nearly two years, coming from a break down in the deciding set to triumph in a classic.
Alex Macpherson
February 15, 2019

DOHA, Qatar - No.1 seed Simona Halep snapped a string of three defeats to No.4 seed Elina Svitolina to make her second Qatar Total Open final with a brilliant comeback win, saving three points to go 1-5 down in the deciding set and emerging on top 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 in two hours and seven minutes.

Coming into today's match, the Ukrainian had led their head-to-head 4-3 - including four of their five encounters since 2014. Halep had been forced to come back from 3-6, 1-5 down and save a match point in her only win during that period, in the 2017 Roland Garros quarterfinals, and since then had won just 13 games and no sets in their following three encounters.

After her quarterfinal win over Julia Goerges yesterday, the 2014 champion had rued "giving up" in some of those matches - and, having looked forward to a chance today to set that right, did so in every sense. Trailing 1-4 in the third set, Halep explained that nothing much had been going through her head except "that I don't want to give up" - and afterwards, she said she had proved a point to herself.

"I'm happy because I didn't give up... The two finals that I played against her in Rome I gave up and I was not ready to fight," Halep explained. "Now I change that, and it makes me happier, because I showed myself that I'm able to do that."

The Romanian was the sharper player in the first set today, saving a break point in the second game and immediately striking on return in the next, breaking Svitolina with a deftly counterpunched backhand winner. Taking the ball early and aiming much closer to the lines than her opponent, Halep's risk-taking paid dividends as she came out on top of a number of high-octane rallies. The Roland Garros champion's backhand down the line was working particularly well, and she was unhesitating in punishing anything that dropped short from Svitolina.

Though the World No.7 tried tweaking her tactics - even serve-and-volleying in the seventh game - she was also beset by 12 unforced errors, particularly off a forehand wing that suffered several shanks. Svitolina was broken for a second time to concede the set, double faulting for the first time on Halep's third set point.

Halep's rampant form continued into the second set as the 27-year-old struck two of her finest winners of the day for a quick hold - but this time, Svitolina responded. Ensuring that she got on top of rallies sooner, the WTA Finals champion wrested control of the baseline and upped her aggression, snatching a break for 2-1 with a ferocious forehand winner down the line.

Some of Svitolina's net forays to this point had been somewhat tentative, but the 24-year-old persisted coming in at judicious moments to increasingly beneficial effect - and she would also prove sharp in defending her lead. Twice Halep, searching for the break back, stretched her to deuce with intense hitting off the ground - but twice it was Svitolina who held to inch ahead again.

By the end of the set, it was the Australian Open quarterfinalist who was now in the zone on both attack and defence: as she scurried from corner to corner, Halep found it increasingly difficult to end points before being goaded into error, while Svitolina conjured up two remarkably angled backhand winners and a pass at full stretch off that wing en route to breaking her opponent again for the set.

As though liberated by the her offensive tactics paying off, Svitolina headed into the decider striking the ball with real freedom. The 13-time WTA titlist found success when creating pace, particularly with several scorching off forehand winners; when counterpunching, when she brought up break point in the second game with another excellent pass and when a marvelously redirected backhand down-the-line paved the way to a hold for 4-1; and even coming out on top of a rare exchange with both players at net.

"She played amazing," marveled Halep afterwards. "She moved very well. She hit the ball strong. She didn't miss much. So I think was a very high level of tennis today, and I'm really proud that I could win the match against her."

Having conceded the break in the second game of the set with a netted forehand, Halep had to summon all of her reserves to cling on to the match. Seeking an insurance break, Svitolina came up with some remarkable tennis to hold three points for a 5-1 lead in an eight-minute, four-deuce sixth game: more fizzing forehand winners, a backhand winner struck from outside the tramlines, a delectable half-volley. But Halep showed that she was up for the fight, fending off all three break points and eventually holding with a dropshot-drive volley combination.

That mini-battle was the turning point. Suddenly, it was Halep hitting her spots once more as Svitolina seemed out of ideas. The World No.3 would reel off the last five games of the match, breaking her opponent to 30 to climb back to 3-4, and after two deuces on her third break point to move up 5-4.

"I was not afraid of hitting the ball - I tried to risk it a little bit," explained Halep of her key to the win. "Without physical, you cannot get back on the match. But also, the mental part is really important, maybe the most important thing. But definitely today I was stronger physically as well, because against Svitolina [it] is never easy to win a match. She's very strong also on the legs. So I think I was strong with everything. That's why I was able to win."

Roared on by her devoted fans' echoing chants of "SI-MO-NA!", Halep accelerated towards the finishing line, producing two magical forehand passes - bringing her tally of winners to 24 - and finishing in style with a booming backhand to serve a significant victory out to 15. Afterwards, she paid tribute to the crowd support: "It's a big thing, because I receive the energy from them," said last year's semifinalist. 

"And it's like they don't let me give up. They just keep me there focused, and they send me their desire to see me, the winner of the match. So I take that like a positive thing, and it gives me more power to fight."

As for Svitolina, the former World No.3 was understandably disappointed. "It was a great battle, and in the end I maybe missed a few more shots that I wouldn't want to miss," she said ruefully. "In the end it was a game, 4-1, where it was important to play and I didn't go for it - and I think maybe those few points decided it."

Up next in the final for Halep will either be No.3 seed Angelique Kerber, in a repeat of the 2014 final, won by the Romanian 6-2, 6-3, or Elise Mertens.