The WTA Insider team previews the Mutua Madrid Open final; will Simona Halep defend her title, or will Kristina Mladenovic cap a breakthrough season with her first Premier Mandatory trophy?
WTA Insider

Courtney Nguyen, Point: On paper, No.3 seed Simona Halep goes into Saturday's final against No.14 seed Kristina Mladenovic as the favorite. The Romanian is the defending champion in Madrid and she's into the final for a record third time in the Spanish capital. The altitude and Romanian fingerprints that awash the tournament -- Romanian great Ion Tiriac is the tournament director -- all go a long way towards making Halep feel like home in Madrid.

But Saturday's final will not be decided by numbers or rankings or the swirl of home comforts. What matters is how Halep handles the situation and whether she can manage not just the ball but her thoughts, as she goes for her first title of 2017.

"I cannot say that I expected this because it was a very tough beginning of the year," Halep said after beating Anastasia Sevastova in the semifinals. "So I'm really proud that I could manage all the situations, all the emotions."

The word of the week, or the last few weeks for Halep, has been "attitude". She remains very much a work in progress as she tries to fight off her negative instincts on the court, but the changes she's made are noticeable.

"In the last five weeks, I feel different," she said. "It's much better. I keep more energy in this way. When I finish a match like yesterday, where it was really tough, I didn't feel tired. That makes me stronger and makes me to understand. It puts me in the way to understand that it's much better to stay relaxed, just calm, not talking and doing other stuff on court."

There have been fewer ramblings towards her box or explosions of self-directed anger after a misplaced shot. That Simona has been replaced by one who puts her head down to work and moves methodically from point to point, who puts the mistakes behind her, and one who, when she does creep towards her breaking point, is able to settle back down. After falling behind 0-3 to Sevastova in the second in the semifinals, Halep was demonstrably frustrated. Then she settled down and won the next six games.

"I never thought about the title that I have here and a lot of points [to defend]," Halep said. "Anyway, before the tournament I was [ranked No.]8. Didn't matter that much. I was relaxed. I didn't have pressure.

"Still I have the same feeling now. I'm not thinking about results in the next tournaments. I just want to keep the attitude very well on court, to keep my game, and to be able to think what I'm doing on court. Just to play without thoughts, feel the ball, but feel also the game and the opponent."

"In the last five weeks, I feel different," she said. "It's much better. I keep more energy in this way. When I finish a match like yesterday, where it was really tough, I didn't feel tired. That makes me stronger and makes me to understand. It puts me in the way to understand that it's much better to stay relaxed, just calm, not talking and doing other stuff on court."
Simona Halep

Mladenovic's game is perfectly designed to get Halep riled up. If Halep grew flustered at having to chase down dropshot after dropshot from the likes of Sevastova or Roberta Vinci this week, she can expect double the dosage against the crafty Frenchwoman. In addition to the touch, Mladenovic's power game will pose a tough puzzle to solve.

But Halep's court position, which has improved immensely since she started working with Darren Cahill, could turn the tide in her favor. If she stays stubborn and holds the baseline, Mladenovic will not have the space for her dropshots and will feel more pressure to hit deeper to back Halep off the line, creating opportunities for errors. Halep is one of the best in the game at opening up the court and getting her opponents running side to side, often breaking open rallies with her backhand down the line, and that's what she'll look to do against Mladenovic.

The other question for Mladenovic is how well she pulls up physically after her late match against Kuznetsova. She told reporters that she began to feel pain in her lower back towards the end of the match but hoped her physio would be able to get her fit by the morning.

"It's going to be very tough one, very big battle," Halep said. "But I will be there. I will try to run. I will try to be focused. I don't want to be nervous again, so I will work on that.

"I don't expect anything. I just want to go there and to do my game because if I do my game, I have a big chance to win."

David Kane, Counterpoint: A year ago, Kristina Mladenovic was rolling into the Mutua Madrid Open final, playing some of the best tennis of her career. The French youngster did it again on Friday, only this time, solo.

“Doubles helps a lot,” she said after defeating partner Svetlana Kuznetsova in straight sets to reach her first career Premier Mandatory final. “It helps everything I'm doing right now, since the beginning of the season. It gave me lots of experience, lots of big moments where I had to handle the pressure.

“Even today, for example, I didn't play this year on Manolo Santana Court. I was like, ‘Okay, let's try to find some memories from last year. We won the doubles final on that court.’”

Mladenovic was mere matches from finishing the 2016 season atop the WTA doubles rankings, and has taken that sort of form to the singles court this year, reaching her fourth final on four different surfaces - hardcourts and clay, indoor and outdoor.

Even after winning her maiden tour title at the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy, the No.14 seed couldn’t deny this was her biggest result yet.

“It’s a Premier Mandatory, of course. Everything is kind of bigger, and it’s a combined event. It feels like everybody's following this tournament much more than the others, when it comes to the fans and entertainment. The draw was bigger, and so I had extra matches compared to the other tournaments where I reached the final.

“But these are the stages you really want to be on. When you see those big names that are still in tournament - on the women’s and men’s sides, as well - you feel like you're quite special.”

Her season could get even more special should she defeat defending champion Simona Halep on Saturday. Not only will she become the first Frenchwoman to reach the Top 15 since Marion Bartoli in 2013, but a title win would also launch her atop the Porsche Race to Singapore leaderboard, usurping friend and sometime doubles partner Karolina Pliskova.

The two biggest changes for Mladenovic? Fitness and focus.

“But these are the stages you really want to be on. When you see those big names that are still in tournament - on the women’s and men’s sides, as well - you feel like you're quite special.”
Kristina Mladenovic

“Tennis-wise, I always had shots, but you can still improve every single day with the precision, the pace. I'm also very into tactics; that's my philosophy of my game. I try to have a focus being able to play different kind of games. When one game is not working, I'm trying a Plan B, a Plan C.

“That wasn't easy in the past because maybe I would lose track.”

She’ll need to be fit and focused against Halep, who has nicely rounded into form after a slow start to her season. The Romanian has dropped just seven games in her last two matches, but Mladenovic has gotten the better of the three-time Madrid finalist in three of their last four meetings - including one two months ago at the BNP Paribas Open.

“She's moving really well. Her game suits perfectly on clay. She's one of the best players, playing extremely well here in Madrid, being the defending champion, always had good results in the past.”

Mladenovic won’t take much for granted, and will aim to blunt Halep’s experience and footspeed with trademark aggression off the ground.

“I'm expecting a tough match. Even though I'm leading in our head-to-head, we never played on clay. That's going to be a brand-new challenge for me, especially that she's more used to being in finals of such a big events than me, especially here in Madrid.

“I really have to bring up my best game if I want to win the title.”

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