Halep battles emotions, feeds off raucous crowd to win National Bank Open title

Simona Halep, of Romania, reacts while holding the trophy after defeating Beatriz Haddad Maia, of Brazil, to win the National Bank Open finals tennis tournament. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO — The blue, yellow and red flags were flying and the fans were chanting “Si-Mo-Na! Si-Mo-Na!” as Simona Halep stood on centre court with her fists clenched and both hands firmly in the air, where she held them for a good long while as she looked up at the sky.

On Sunday afternoon, the 30-year-old Romanian won the National Bank Open with a back-and-forth three-set win over Beatriz Haddad-Maia, the unseeded Brazilian who’d been a giant-killer this week, but not so in the final over the woman who has now won an incredible three titles in Canada.

And as much as Halep loves playing in this country — she called it “special” in her post-match speech, which got the crowd going — the fact is Toronto in particular really loves Halep. Romanian flags absolutely dominated the crowd on Sunday, with some wearing Romanian coloured jester and cowboy hats, and others holding signs that said “We love Simona!”

The fans who helped make this the most well-attended women’s event in the tournament’s history were going absolutely bananas as they watched Halep win. Their raucous chants happened throughout the match, and so often that the chair umpire several times had to say “thank you” and “please” in her dulcet tone to get them to be quiet so that play could resume.

“For me it's great to have such a big support because it's pushing you in tough moments,” Halep said after the match, dressed in a Nike sweatshirt and black shorts and sneakers, with her trophy sitting on a table in front of her. “They were cheering for me every single point, even if I was down during the match. It's super important because you feel that you have so many people next to you, and you feel stronger a little bit.”

Halep is feeling much stronger than she was even a couple of months ago. And, as of Monday, she’ll regain her place among the world’s top 10.

“I've been many years there, but now I feel like it's a big deal to be back in top 10,” the two-time Grand Slam winner said, with a grin. “I'm really happy with this performance. When I started the year I was not very confident and I set the goal to be, at the end of the year, top 10. And here I am. So it's very special moment. I will enjoy it. I will give myself credit. I'm just dreaming for more.”

And that’s huge, too, for Halep to dream for more. Earlier this season, she said she was thinking of taking a step back from tennis, but then she began working with coach Patrick Mouratoglou, and she says she got her “fire” back.

The fire was in this championship match, to be sure. It featured incredible rallies and was a see-saw battle, much more than the 6-3, 2-6, 6-3 final score suggests.

Halep didn’t do herself any favours early on. In her first service game, she had four double faults, including on break point. The serve was her biggest struggle all week long.

“Oh, yeah, terrible,” Halep said. “I've been stressed a little bit. I didn't expect to do four double-faults in one game. I don't know if it happened before. But sometimes you have to accept that you are not great in some moments, and still fighting to calm down and to get the confidence back.”

And did she ever storm back from that brutal start. Down 0-3 in the opening set, Halep not only held serve for the first time on championship Sunday, she ended one of her service games with an emphatic ace, and she won six straight games to take the first set with a cross-court winner. After set point, Halep leaned down and gave a hearty fist-pump as the crowd roared and waved their flags.

“I was three-love up and I couldn’t hold the emotions, I couldn’t control myself,” said Haddad Maia, who earlier this week defeated the world No. 1, Iga Swiatek, and who made history as the first Brazilian to crack the final of a WTA 1000 event. “Simona started to play better, to improve.”

Halep, too, struggled with emotions on this Sunday, which she said explained her slow start. “Normally I get rid of them fast,” she said. “But today also her spin [because Haddad Maia is a lefty], I needed time a little bit to get used to it. And, yeah, I just calmed down after 0-3. Then I think I found a good rhythm. I played what I had to play. That's why I could win six games in a row.”

But it was all Haddad Maia in the second set. When the Brazilian earned a break point with a passing shot while Halep was at the net, Halep whipped her racquet to the court in frustration, and then she smacked her thigh several times when Haddad Maia converted on that break point. The world No. 24 kept rolling, too: Haddad Maia got out to a 4-0 lead and didn’t look back, setting off the Brazilian fans in attendance, who broke out into “Ole, ole, ole, old, Bi-a, Bi-a!” chants as she forced a third set.

“I think Brazilians are not used to scream for tennis,” Haddad Maia said, with a grin. “Sometimes they scream a little bit more. They think they are in a soccer game.”

And it made for one heck of an atmosphere.

Halep regained control early in the third set, making good on her first break point opportunity to take a 2-0 lead as Haddad Maia sent a shot well long. In the final game of the match, Halep made the type of incredible shot that has helped to get her here. Haddad Maia was up at the net, and as Halep scrambled to reach a forehand shot, she ripped a crosscourt winner, going from defense to immediate offense, and sending the crowd into yet another tizzy for their eventual champion.

On Monday, Halep heads to Cincinnati for her next event. “So I’m going to practice, that will be the celebration,” she said. “There’s no time for celebration.”

Well, maybe not for the woman who’s the cause of the party, but here’s betting there are more than a few Romanians celebrating in her honour in and around Toronto. Sunday marks Halep’s first win in this city, having won her last two Canadian titles in the other host city, Montreal.

“Here there are many Romanians and they always come to support me,” she said. “I’m really happy that I could win also here.”

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