Last year’s result
The US Open has never been Simona Halep’s happiest hunting ground, though she did reach the semifinals in 2015 (lost to Pennetta). Last year, however, she did not even come close to matching that result. Rather, she lost in the first round to Maria Sharapova 4-6 6-4 3-6 in a match in an ill-tempered match due to the decision to award Sharapova a wildcard after her ban for the use of a prohibited substance.
Barring a poor result at Wimbledon, where she lost in the third round, Halep has been excellent over the past few months. The highlight for her was surely her run to the title in Paris, where she defeated Sloane Stephens in an excellent final to win her maiden Slam. She then recovered impressively from a third round loss at Wimbledon to win the title in Montreal, her second in Canada, where she defeated Stephens in another excellent final.
Halep then turned her attentions to Cincinnati. She began the week by rallying past Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic, before beating Ashleigh Barty for the second time in as many weeks. That was followed by a convincing 6-4 6-1 win over Lesia Tsurenko in the quarterfinals and a 6-3 6-4 victory over Aryna Sabalenka in the semifinals. But she fell just short against Kiki Bertens in the final where she lost 6-2 6-7 6-2 despite holding a championship point.
Most important shot
For Halep, winning matches is often as much about what she can stop opponents doing as what she does herself. Her movement is consistently excellent and her ability to keep the ball in play has frustrated more than a few opponents, even those at the top of the game. It also allows her to take on and beat players that she cannot match for power, as evidenced by her victories over the likes of Muguruza, Garcia, Stephens and Sabalenka in the last few months illustrate.
But when Halep is at her very best it is not merely her ball-retrieval skills that make her so difficult to beat, but rather her ability to defend proactively. By maintaining excellent depth and controlling and redirecting the power her opponents attempt to hit through her with, Halep is able to avoid giving up court position and wear down the opposition. Doing so requires excellent timing and quality on both wings, but fortunately the Romanian has both.
It is a testament to how well Halep has played over the past few months that this year’s US Open is the first Grand Slam since Wimbledon in 2016 where the WTA’s top ranking hasn’t been up for grabs. Over the past couple of seasons there have been a few occupants of the rankings penthouse, but Halep is the first one to make it feel like she has a firm grip on the top spot. And that grip puts her in good position going into the US Open.
Beating her has looked like a challenge to players’ mental strength as well as their tennis ability and that is surely the mark of a true #1. It will also make her exceedingly difficult to stop in New York. Halep should be fresh and rested after her decision to withdraw from the Connecticut Open this week and when she has been fresh and rested, she has been almost unbeatable lately. Expect her to carry her good form into the US Open and to claim her second Grand Slam crown.