Dubai: Romanian superstar Simona Halep is eagerly counting down the days to when she can begin the defence of her Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships title.
The prestigious WTA 1000 tournament, which will start on March 7, is one of the most popular on the worldwide tour, and the reigning champion will be competing for the eighth time. It is clearly a week she is looking forward to.
“I like the people. The weather. The court I also like. Just everything. I feel very comfortable here,” she said during her run to the 2020 title.
A year ago the top seed successfully emerged from one of the toughest weeks of her career to add to her 2015 Dubai title, saving a match point in her opening match against Ons Jabeur, fighting back from a set down to defeat Aryna Sabalenka and then producing a near flawless performance against Jennifer Brady in the semi-finals, committing just eight unforced errors, before bringing her week to a thrilling conclusion.
Her 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 victory over Elena Rybakina was arguably the most dramatic final in the history of the women’s event and a fitting end to the 20th anniversary celebrations of the tournament hosting the WTA Tour. There were countless rallies which stretched both players to the limit, and the outcome remained in doubt right up until the final ball.
“She fought till the end,” said a relieved Halep after her epic battle. “She didn’t give up any balls. It was really tough mentally. The pressure was very high. But I wanted it badly, so that’s why I fought till the end. Yeah, I think these matches, sometimes it’s better if we finish equal because I feel in a way sorry for her because she’s young and she wanted it so much too.”
“We were all on the edge of our seats during Halep’s wonderful performance in the 2020 final, and it was a battle that will remain in our memory for many years to come,” said Colm McLoughlin, Executive vice-chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free.
“We look forward with great anticipation to seeing if she can repeat her success this year, and we wish her well,” he added.
The pandemic then interrupted the season and presented many challenges and disruption to her schedule as numerous tournaments were cancelled. Halep was resilient though, and followed up her impressive semi-final appearance at the Australian Open and the winning of her second Dubai crown by claiming further titles in her next two events.
First came victory in Prague, and then after beating Garbine Muguruza in the Rome semi-finals she was awarded the title when Karolina Pliskova was forced to retire during the final. It was Halep’s first title there after she had also contested the 2017 and 2018 finals.
Having made her top-10 debut in January 2014, in each of her last seven seasons Halep has reached the No. 1 or No. 2 ranking and posted a top-5 finish. Her streak of seven top-5 finishes is the longest since Steffi Graf’s eleven consecutive seasons from 1986-1996.
In all, she holds 22 singles titles including the 2018 French Open and 2019 Wimbledon crowns, and she has reached a further 17 finals, including two at the French Open and one Australian Open.
“My goal was not just to win a tournament or a Slam,’ Halep related.
“Of course, every player in the top wants to win a Grand Slam. I wanted that badly. I wanted to be No. 1 badly. But it came as a package, not as the one focus. I think that’s why I could be consistent over the years.
“My mentality as a player was all the time that I have to be permanently good enough to get results. I didn’t focus myself on tournaments or Slams. I focused every week on the work, every year to offer myself to this sport. Everything I did since I was 14 years old was for tennis and my focus was to see how good I could be.
“I’m looking for perfection, that’s for sure. But at the same time, I know perfection doesn’t exist. So I could accept my imperfection many times and try to get it closer to perfection. Maybe reaching all the time for perfection made me push my limits higher,” she added.
And now she is striving for another perfect week in Dubai as she bids to become only the third player to win the Dubai Duty Free WTA event three times, following the four titles claimed by Justin Henin in 2003 and 2004 and 2006 and 2007 and the three won by Venus Williams in 2009, 2010 and 2014. Her 2021 season has so far seen her reach the quarter-finals of the Gippsland Trophy and the Australian Open.
“Simona Halep is a great competitor and one of the most popular among her peers, and it is a pleasure to welcome her back to Dubai,” said Tournament Director Salah Tahlak.
“She will face a difficult task in defending her title as she faces competition from almost every other member or the world’s top-20, including No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, 2020 Australian Open champion and French Open runner-up Sofia Kenin, reigning French Open champion Iga Swiatek and 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu.”
The 21st staging of the WTA 1000 event takes place from March 7 to 13 and will be followed by the 29th star-studded ATP tournament from March 14 to 20. The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships is owned and organised by Dubai Duty Free and held under the patronage of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.