Dubai Tennis Championships: Simona Halep’s newfound offense and Elena Rybakina’s risk-free power produce thrilling final

  • Halep had been struggling in non-Slam events for a while; if you keep aside her Wimbledon triumph last year, Dubai is her first title since August 2018

  • Halep has always been a counter puncher extraordinaire, but her recent emphasis on offense is helping her turn into a more complete – and therefore tougher to beat – player

  • Rybakina has reached four finals this year (winning one in Hobart) and has almost unobtrusively expanded the WTA NextGen ‘head of the class’ with her powerful-but-stable game

When you think of Simona Halep, you think of relentless court coverage, impossible gets and tremendous foot-speed. The things that she does better than anybody else in the world – like the running forehand, for example – are all based on reactive tennis and scrambling defense. And that is also why, unfortunately for her, she’s always been considered vulnerable to a redlining big hitter; sooner or later a player comes along that takes the racquet out of her hands.

In Dubai this week Halep faced three consecutive big hitters, and at least two of them were close to redlining. Her opponent in the final Elena Rybakina was possibly the best of those three, and it was no surprise that she took Halep deep into the deciding set with her effortless power.

The Romanian needed to call upon every bit of her famed stubbornness and wall-like defense to stay afloat, and she did. At 5-5 Rybakina smacked a brilliant crosscourt forehand that would’ve been a winner against most players, but Halep responded by stabbing a down-the-line forehand winner that paved the way for the all-important break. The best running forehand in the world was making its presence felt.

 Dubai Tennis Championships: Simona Halep’s newfound offense and Elena Rybakina’s risk-free power produce thrilling final

Romania's Simona Halep returns the ball to Kazakhstan's Elena Rybakina during the final match of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

But Halep failed to serve it out in the next game, getting broken through a combination of her own nerves and Rybakina’s nothing-to-lose abandon. And when the Kazakh went a mini-break up at 4-3 in the tiebreak with a thunderous return winner, it looked like Halep was going to come up short against an outsized opponent yet again.

That’s when Halep broke convention, and reminded us why she is the reigning champion at the Slam that rewards offense more than any other. Taking the ball on the rise, she moved Rybakina side-to-side before breaking open with a blazing down the line forehand. Rybakina could only hit a short backhand in response, and Halep stepped in to crush a clean inside-out forehand winner.

The mini-break retrieved, she was never in danger of losing the match again, and promptly converted her first match point at 6-5.

It was the defensive running forehand that kept Halep in the match at 5-5, but it was the aggressive stand-and-deliver forehand that won it for her in the tiebreak. Is it time to revisit the idea that reactive tennis is the Romanian’s only strength?

After the last point Halep fell flat on her back and stayed there for a while, and anyone would be mistaken for thinking that she had won a Slam rather than a Premier title. But this victory meant a lot, and not just because Rybakina had pushed her to the absolute brink with her nerveless play.

Halep had been struggling in non-Slam events for a while; if you keep aside her Wimbledon 2019 triumph, Dubai is her first title since August 2018. That it came after such a titanic effort in the thrilling finale, and against the type of player that has always been her Achilles’ heel, had to feel cathartic.

"It feels great that I could win it," Halep said after the match. "Actually, it was amazing. [Rybakina] fought till the end. She didn't give up any balls. It was really tough mentally. The pressure was very high. But I want it badly, so that's why I fought till the end."

At SW19, Halep had shown off a newfound willingness to land the first blow in rallies, and her win over Serena Williams in the final was the perfect representation of how effective that could be. She had also produced glimpses of her hard-as-nails offense in her run to the Australian Open semifinal last month, before she was stopped by a Garbine Muguruza who was playing the best tennis of her life. But between those two deep runs in London and Melbourne, Halep had suffered a string of dispiriting losses that had raised questions about how she was going about her business.

Well, the questions can subside. Halep has always been a counter puncher extraordinaire, but her recent emphasis on offense is helping her turn into a more complete – and therefore tougher to beat – player. She may not be producing as consistent results as she was a couple of years ago, but by learning to grab the initiative against the ball-bashers of the tour, she is showing that she is on the right track.

Romania's Simona Halep, right, holds her trophy next to Kazakhstan's Elena Rybakina, after she won the final match of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Romania's Simona Halep, right, holds her trophy next to Kazakhstan's Elena Rybakina, after she won the final match of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Also on the right track is her vanquished opponent Rybakina, who for a while in the final looked like she was born for the big stage. The 20-year-old has reached as many as four finals this year (winning one, in Hobart), and has almost unobtrusively expanded the WTA NextGen ‘head of the class’ with her powerful-but-stable game.

Rybakina has a great first serve and an explosive ground game, and yet she doesn’t make a lot of errors because she rarely aims for the lines. The Kazakh has a mindset akin to, say, a Karolina Pliskova or a Juan Martin del Potro; she hits hard and heavy at all times, but without taking a lot of risk. That makes her shots less liable to breaking down under pressure – a fact that was reinforced in ample measure by the way she stayed with Halep till the very end.

"She's strong," Halep said about Rybakina after the match. "She has a huge serve. She's tall. She has power. I think she's really good to get into the top 10 very soon."

That might not be a stretch at all, considering Rybakina is already up to No. 17 in the rankings. The youngster has the game and the temperament to get close to the top; now she just needs to work on fine-tuning her tools.

Her point-ending efficiency could perhaps be improved, as could her movement and her down-the-line forehand. Rybakina made a lot of ill-advised net approaches during the final, and also failed to put away regulation forehands after opening up the court; against someone like Halep, those are recipes for disaster. That Rybakina made such mis-steps and still took it to tiebreak in the third, tells us all we need to know about her potential.

It’s an exciting time to be a WTA fan, with a new force of nature coming up on the tour practically every single month. The addition of a player like Rybakina to the mix is a terrific sign whichever way you look at it, and it will be fascinating to track her progress going forward.

But while we celebrate the new, it is also worth appreciating the (relatively) old. Halep has been around for more than a decade now, and yet she is still adding different wrinkles to her game, still trying everything in her power to keep herself firmly entrenched at the top.

That running forehand will always be a thing of pure joy. But now there’s the stand-and-deliver forehand too; that is the thing that will win her the big titles against the big hitters.

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Updated Date: Feb 23, 2020 12:34:11 IST