By Ros Satar, in Madrid

  • Simona Halep [6] def. Dominika Cibulkova 6-2 6-4
  • Halep goes back into the Top 5 and hits the Road to Singapore for the first time this year

MADRID, SPAIN – Simona Halep gave ’Mr Tiriac’ something to smile about as she coasted to a straight sets win over Dominika Cibulkova for the Mutua Madrid Open title.

Halep cruised to a straight sets win after a week that saw little short of carnage on the WTA draw with more than half the seeds out by the end of the second day.

Halep had a stuttering start to her clay court season, saying all the right things in Stuttgart before crashing out in her opener, and whisking herself out of the Porsche Arena without a backwards glance.

But it was a very different story in a city she enjoys. Not only does the tournament owner Ion Tiriac have plenty of reason to help support his fellow Romanian (and after all he saw no less than four players contest the quarter-finals). She had hardly troubled the main draw in the preceding years before Tiriac’s wildcard for her in 2013. She credits that with turning her career around – winning her first six titles after the French Open in one year.

A year later – she reached the final in Madrid, losing to Maria Sharapova, before losing to the Russian again at the French Open final – her first Slam final … so far.

She started strongly in her opening rounds, tested only by compatriot Irina-Camelia Begu in the quarter-finals before dominating Samantha Stosur n the semi-final.

It was that same determination that drove her to break Cibulkova right at the start of the match, before putting the boot in midway through the set. The Slovakian was in it from the start to the end of the match to the end, but met a veritable wall.

Only when Halep was serving for the set did the Romanian seem to falter, scrambling to save three break points before converting her first set point.

The second set started just as the first, with an immediate break, not to mention a long and drawn out battle for Halep to build a 3-1 lead – that felt like the pivotal moment.

While the next few games were solid for both, it was enough of a lead for Halep to hold on to, as she claimed the title, her second mandatory title and with it reclaims a spot in the Top 5, as well as planting herself firmly on the Road to Singapore.

Let’s not forget that Cibulkova’s road back up the rankings has been just as remarkable, especially after missing four months of 2015 with a left Achilles injury. Since then she has reached three finals this year, notching up the title in Katowice.

 

Although disappointed, it has been a solid run and good preparation for the Slovakian. She said, after the match:

“I could hope for more, but playing finals here, it’s a great experience. I was playing great as the whole week. Now I just want to get some rest and prepare for Roland Garros. Because my game on clay really came together. I know what to do. Yeah, today I would change few things. I would play bit more aggressive from the beginning. But she was playing really well.”

For Halep, in a country with a huge Romanian population, not to mention of course ‘Mr Tiriac’, it was a significant win. She joins an elite group to hold multiple Premier Mandatory titles.

She said: “I didn’t expect actually before coming here that I’m going to win this title. But after first week when I practiced with Darren [Cahill] every day like I said, many hours on court, I felt that I have my chance.

“Day by day I played better tennis. That helped me a lot to improve in myself, in in my mental, and to be more confident. I was feeling great. Nothing like injury or something like that. So everything was okay. That’s why maybe I could win almost in two sets all the matches.”

A couple of years ago when she had broken through, stunned Serena Williams at the year end finals before making the finals herself, she struggled maybe to cope with the resultant pressure. She went through coaches, and while she continued to pick up titles, she continued to find it hard sometimes to maintain that consistency which sometimes come from being the hunted and not the hunter anymore.

She replied: “I still hunt now, because I am 7. No, I didn’t feel actually at that point that I was — they were hunting me. It’s normal that the players that are ranked about 20, 30 want to beat the top 10 players. It’s normal. I was in that position and I know the feeling. But still, now I’m used to it. I don’t care about who I play. I’m not thinking about the ranking anymore.

“So I have more experience. I am used to this situation. Hopefully this time I will be much better and more relaxed, because it’s really important to be relaxed in this sport.”

One big difference between 2014 and now – after making the final here and going on to make the final of the French Open, she bowed out early in Rome. This time around, she is defending semi-final points, having crashed out of Madrid early last year.

She said: “It’s tough to go there, to be honest, but I just want to enjoy this moment right now. I’m not thinking about points. Like this week. I didn’t think about points, about anything. I just wanted to play. I will have few days off, and then I will think about my first match there.

“Still, I have time because I will play Wednesday. I have a bye I just saw. Yeah, I’m thinking about that tournament. I will play it and I will play like here, hopefully. It’s not easy, but I will try my best to keep going and to win matches.”

The Internazionali BNL d’Italia takes place between 9-15 May.

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