To mark the end of an incredible 2018 season, we're counting down the Top 5 WTA tournament matches of the year.
Continuing our countdown is Kiki Bertens’ stunning turnaround in the Western & Southern Open against World No.1 Simona Halep - sealing the Dutch player’s biggest win and first hardcourt title.
After lifting the trophy in Charleston and reaching a final in Madrid, Kiki Bertens was settling nicely into her role as the WTA’s resident clay court specialist and reaching new career heights every week. But she turned heads with back-to-back runs to the Wimbledon and Montreal quarterfinals - proving that she was more than a lone-surface wonder.
Read the match report: Brilliant Bertens blasts past Halep for Cincinnati title
Still, no one was more surprised to see Bertens in the Cincinnati final than Bertens herself: ranked World No.17, she had defeated heavyweights like World No.2 Caroline Wozniacki, No.5 seed Elina Svitolina and No.8 seed Petra Kvitova - who had previously downed Bertens in the Madrid final - en route to the biggest championship match of her career.
Standing across the net from Bertens in the Western & Southern Open was none other than World No.1 Simona Halep, the top seed fresh from a win in Montreal and still riding high after claiming her first Grand Slam title at Roland Garros.
It was the Romanian that dominated in the first set, Halep’s aggression claiming two breaks as an error-prone Bertens fell back 6-2. She had to turn things around in the second set in a big way - she built up a 4-1 lead against Halep, but her opponent fought her way back into it to level at 4-4.
Under pressure, Bertens had to save match points in the second set tiebreaker, batting away Halep’s chances with big forehands and finally claiming the set after a tight contest. An increasingly tiring Halep seemed to flag after that and Bertens took control, notching another pair of breaks to claim the biggest win of her career - and her very first hardcourt title - winning 2-6, 7-6(6), 6-2.
As it happened: Live Blog: Bertens bests Halep in Cincinnati final comeback
WHAT THEY SAID:
Bertens was effusive after the match: "Winning a title like this, my first hardcourt title, and then against No.1 of the world, getting my career high on Monday… I don't know. It's just coming everything together, I guess," she said.
"In the beginning, I knew that I had to play aggressive, but I was a little bit doubting sometimes, like where should I hit, because [Halep's] such a great mover also on the court," Bertens continued. "I think in the second set I had that feeling a little bit more, like, where I could attack her serve or where I could play a little bit more forward coming to the net. The second and the third I was more feeling that."
Champions Corner interview: Bertens breaks down her Cincinnati breakthrough
"I had a chat with [coach] Raemon [Sluiter] at 2-1 [in the third set] and I was, like, 'I'm dead,'" Bertens admitted. "Then I said to myself, 'No, I can do this. Let's go for it.'"
For her part, Halep rued her missed opportunities - especially her second-set match point - and her lack of energy after playing 10 matches in a row.
“ It's tough to talk about it, because... I lost it from the match point, and to lose it in the final, it's worse,” Halep said. “I'm not making a drama, but I'm upset a little bit on myself.
“I was also... I can say I gave up, because I didn't have energy left. But she played really well, and she really deserves to win that, this title, because her level was very high.”
WHAT IT MEANT:
Bertens used her run in Cincinnati as a springboard to new career heights, lifting a third 2018 title in Seoul after recording a third-round finish at the US Open. She cracked the Top 10 in October - a historic first for the Netherlands - and finished her season with a run to the semifinals in her BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global debut.
Meanwhile, Halep went on to withdraw from New Haven - citing a right Achilles injury - and didn’t win a match for the rest of the year after struggling with a herniated disk. She recorded first round defeats at the US Open, Beijing and Wuhan before withdrawing from Moscow and, later, the WTA Finals.
In an ironic twist, it was Halep’s withdrawal from Singapore that ultimately led to Bertens’ making her WTA Finals debut. With all eight spots taken, Bertens sat at No.9 as the first alternate, and she was called to compete after the Romanian formally put an end to her season in Singapore.