By Jonathan Newman
Simona Halep finds herself, once more, one match away from becoming the top ranked women's tennis player in the world. If she beats Garbiñe Muguruza tomorrow in the Cincinnati final, Halep will be the 24th
woman to hold the top ranking. She would have been the 23rd woman to climb the WTA summit, but that honour went to Karolina Pliskova, after Halep squandered two prior chances earlier this year.
The first, the French Open final against Jelena Ostapenko, is one that Halep jokes still gives her nightmares. In her All Access Hour this week in Cincinnati, Halep quipped, "I was very close, winning the Grand Slam and being number one in the same day, I still have bad dreams about that (laughs), I still suffer." Tomorrow, Halep gets another chance to exorcise those demons.
Today, Halep faced a resurgent Sloane Stephens in the Cincinnati semifinals. Stephens, off the tour for more than a year after having foot surgery, made the semifinals in Toronto last week and continued that rich run of form this week. Stephens, however, was not at her physical best after playing two matches yesterday due to the rain-affected schedule on Thursday night.
"I mean, three matches in 24 hours is never easy, so gonna go with that," said Stephens. "I actually didn't think I played that badly. I think she's just a little bit fresher and just wasn't a great day."
Halep, for her part, looked every bit as fresh as Stephens described in her press conference. From the onset, the Romanian moved with purpose and was the clear aggressor of the two, dictating points throughout. After surviving a nervy finish to her quarterfinal win over Johanna Konta, where she lost five match points, Halep was in complete control a day later. If the top ranking were on her mind, she did not show it.
Prior to today's match Halep knew she needed to win the title to become No. 1, but she wasn't aware of just how close the battle was until before her semifinal: "Before the match I talked to my brother by SMS, that, 'Is it true that I am five points away if I win the match?' He said, 'Yes.' I said, 'It's unbelievable. Five points, can you believe it?'"
Halep says she is more relaxed now than she was the two previous times she played for the top ranking. When asked what is different this time, Halep said "I'm more relaxed now. So I'm not thinking about that (No.1). I know that if I keep this level, is gonna come. If not tomorrow, maybe next weeks. But I'm much better now. Hopefully I can play better."
This time she will play the current Wimbledon champion, Garbiñe Muguruza. After battling through a pair of three-set matches against Madison Keys and Svetlana Kuznetsova, Muguruza made easy work of the current world No. 1, beating Karolina Pliskova 6-3 6-2. Halep and Muguruza have played three previous times, and the Spaniard leads their head-to-head 2-1.
Halep acknowledges that winning a first Grand Slam title remains her primary goal, but also appreciates the unique opportunity she gets tomorrow: "I think it's something special to get No. 1 in the world. Only 23 players got that." Halep also knows that a handful of players are in the same position as her and is eager to grab her chance tomorrow, "everyone can get to No. 1 now. The ranking is close. So depends of anyone. But I am so close. I really want that. So we will see."