On a sweltering Sunday in Mason, Ohio, Kiki Bertens outhit and outlasted world number one Simona Halep to win her first hardcourt title. Both women came into this final riding high on a string of impressive results: Bertens had beaten nine top 10 players on the season, adding #2 Wozniacki, #5 Svitolina, and #8 Kvitova to her list just this week. Halep, the reigning French Open champion, worked through the draw without much trouble, save for her opener against Tomljanovic. Halep entered Cincinnati as the Rogers Cup champion after cementing her number one status against Sloane Stephens in a grueling final last week. This week, Halep was gunning to become the first woman since Evonne Goolagong in 1973 to win Canada and Cincinnati in the same year.
Halep swept through the first set doing much of what she did yesterday against Aryna Sabalenka: smacking her forehand deep, using her movement as a weapon, and looking to move forward and finish points whenever she could. Halep landed 92% of her first serves in the opener, compared to just 43% from Bertens. While she protected her own serve, Halep also created two break chances against her opponent, and capitalized on both.
Bertens said about the first set, “I had to run too much on the court, and she's, like, really good at that. So I was, like, Okay, there is only one chance and you have to play a little bit more aggressive, go a little bit more for your returns and for your serve.”
In the second set, Bertens started to do just that. Halep immediately fell behind 1-4, as her opponent started playing with more purpose, pinning Halep far behind the baseline and finishing with deft drop shots. Halep’s first response was to call for coach Darren Cahill, after which she reeled off three straight games. One of the critical moments of the match came at 4-4; Halep earned a break chance on Bertens’ serve with a stunning, 26-shot rally. But, Halep failed to capitalize on the momentum shift, and after a long, grueling game, Bertens held for 5-4.
Bertens -- even through a few bouts of frustration -- kept the pressure on, swiping away any Halep momentum with big serving and consistently deep groundstrokes. In the tiebreak, Bertens was the clear aggressor (for better or worse); with the aggression came more mistakes, leading to a match point for Halep at 6-5. But, a steely Bertens wiped it away with a huge serve-forehand combination that caught Simona stretching to her backhand side.
As was the case yesterday when she lost the first set against Petra Kvitova, once Bertens troubleshooted her way through the second set, she was able to roll with the momentum through the third. The pair traded breaks to begin the set, but the Dutchwoman quickly took control. With Halep showing signs of fatigue after the first game, Bertens needed only to hold her nerve and serve, eventually closing out the biggest title of her career with an ace.
Halep leaves Cincinnati with a drastically different mindset from last year. In 2017, she apologized to reporters after her confounding loss to Wozniacki in the Toronto semifinals, and did the same after a similar showing against Muguruza in the Cincinnati final. Although she lost again in this year’s Cincinnati final, her feelings about her game are totally different, both mentally and physically. Having conquered Paris in June and sustained her run at #1, she is playing more freely than ever.
She said earlier in the week: “It was tough last year, maybe the pressure of being no. 1 in the world, so I didn’t know how to manage it.’ But now I feel different, I feel stronger mentally, and I enjoy more.” Her loss today was not a mental collapse, but rather the sum of two weeks on the hot, humid North American courts and facing a dogged, aggressive opponent.
Bertens’ victory marks her first hardcourt final and win, her first Premier 5 title, and her first victory over a reigning number one. She jumps to #7 in the Race to Singapore and a career high #13 in the WTA rankings. Her rise this year owes in large part to more consistent play; she won in Charleston, made the final in Madrid, and took out Karolina Pliskova and Venus Williams on her way to the Wimbledon quarterfinals. No longer a mere clay-court specialist, Bertens will take this hardcourt confidence and season-long momentum into the wide-open field at the U.S. Open.