MADRID, SPAIN - Simona Halep fought off her demons and an exemplary performance from the most in-form player on tour, to beat Kristina Mladenovic 7-5, 6-7(5), 6-2 to win her second Mutua Madrid Open title. Halep already made history by becoming the first woman to make three finals in the Spanish capital, and she became the first woman to successfully defend her title in Madrid since Serena Williams.
Three takeaways from Halep's resurgent week in Madrid:
Halep can now bask in a full-circle moment.
It's been a tough year for the 25-year-old, who came into Madrid down at No.8, her lowest ranking since February 2014. After a hard-working pre-season, she started 2017 full of ambition but sustained a knee injury in her first tournament of the year that left her hampered and sidelined through the Middle East swing.
Physically fit but lacking in confidence and match rhythm, she got back on court at the BNP Paribas Open and slowly worked her way back. She was ousted by Mladenovic in an easy straight sets in the California desert but insisted she just needed more matches. A change was around the corner.
Sure enough, she booked a spot in the quarterfinals of the Miami Open a few weeks later. It was a match she felt she should have won against Johanna Konta, after serving for the match at 5-4 in the second set and then losing a tight tiebreak after leading 5-3. Halep went away from there, excoriating herself during an on-court coaching timeout.
The world saw it. Halep saw it too, and later said she was "ashamed" by her behavior in that moment. She blamed her negative mentality for the loss and vowed to fix it, spurred on by coach Darren Cahill's decision to, at least temporarily, part ways.
Halep's on-court attitude is a work in progress but the progress is evident. After making the Miami quarters she avenged her loss to Konta on clay in Fed Cup, then rolled to the semifinals of Stuttgart. After a week of preparation, she got through a tricky draw in Madrid, coming from behind to beat Roberta Vinci and out-gritting Samantha Stosur, and managed all those mental demons that undid her in Miami.
She also tapped into the physicality that eluded her at the start of the season, outlasting the field to advance to her first final of the season.
All the work Halep has put in both on and off the court over the last few weeks came together in the final against Mladenovic. Over 2 hours and 44 minutes, Halep fought off Mladenovic and herself to stay even-keeled and sprint across the finish line for her first title since the Rogers Cup last summer. There were moments she could have let the frustration overtake her - and to be fair, there were flashes when it did - but Halep found a way to re-center herself quickly, even after losing a tough second set against a hampered opponent.
A month ago Halep may have lost that third set in a bagel. On Saturday night she ran away with it.
Mladenovic proves once again to be a major threat.
Madrid was another statement tournament from Mladenovic, who has quietly emerged as one of the driving forces of the 2017 season. Her run to the title at the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy in February may have been overlooked but it's clear the title sparked something within Mladenovic, who went into that tournament 0-2 on the season.
Mladenovic's first statement tournament came at Indian Wells, where she beat both Halep and Caroline Wozniacki to make her first Premier Mandatory semifinal at the BNP Paribas Open. Then came her run to the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix final, where she beat Angelique Kerber and Maria Sharapova in Stuttgart. This week in Madrid, her win over a well-respected veteran like Svetlana Kuznetsova, and then taking one of the best clay-court players in the game to a grueling three-set final, again proved her mettle.
Mladenovic was pure class during and after the match, which is not an easy feat after taking her third loss in a final this season. Mladenovic refused to talk about the clear lower back pain she felt throughout the match, choosing instead to celebrate the quality of one of the best finals of the season.
"Honestly this final was quite amazing," Mladenovic said. "That's the feeling I have, because what we did today with Simona on the court, battling for two hours and a half in the last match of the tournament, knowing we for sure had both of us a long and tiring tournament to reach the final, and somehow to push even more to produce probably the best tennis from both of us for the entire tournament.
"I can just be proud out there from both of us what we showed. I think it was a great final. Great spirit, attitude, great game. Got to give credit to Simona for an amazing game today."
Halep and Mladenovic should be on everyone's shortlist for Roland Garros.
Both women head to Rome full of confidence but, admittedly, exhausted. Whether they can repeat their form in the Eternal City is unclear. Regardless of their results next week, Halep and Mladenovic will head to Roland Garros as the two most in-form players on the clay. Mladenovic made back-to-back finals and scored two Top 10 wins in Stuttgart and Madrid. Halep has lost just once since the tour turned to clay.
Rome offers another chance for the tour's best to put their stamp on the clay season. But for now, Halep and Mladenovic are the ones to beat.