Simona Halep and Jelena Jankovic were perfectly matched for today’s final at the BNP Paribas Open.
On the first day of the tournament, Halep received stunning news that her cousin had died, apparently from suicide. Naturally unprepared for such a tragedy, she contemplated a withdrawal, but decided instead to play on in honor of her cousin who loved the game.
Jankovic was unprepared, too. She hadn’t hit a ball for 10 days, when her time came to play her first match. After defeating Sabine Lisicki in the semifinal over a week later, Jankovic pondered the irony of preparation and no preparation – seemingly gaining insight into her tennis game, career and the natural course of life.
So in a final that featured two unlikely women, given their circumstances, the outcome spoke loudly about the winner’s perseverance and determination, athletic ability, and a lock-tight mind that could – and did – rebound with every passing moment.
That woman was Halep.
The No. 3 seed started slow, corrected mistakes, and took advantage of a shaky opponent, who had the match on her racquet, to win 2-6 7-5 6-4, in just over two-and-a-half hours on a semi-cloudy day in the California desert.
“I didn’t play my best,” Halep told ESPN before the trophy presentation. “I did many mistakes with my forehand. But, I was fighting to the end. This tournament for me is amazing.”
This title is Halep’s biggest win: a WTA Premier Mandatory tournament that elevates her total career titles to 11. She also becomes the leader in titles won for the year at three, and ties Karolina Pliskova and Timea Bascinszky for the most match wins for the year — 20.
A match remarkable for its dizzying number of breaks of serve — 18 — also included the expected drama from Jankovic and fits of anger from Halep, which many thought were behind her. But as errors piled up early for the Romanian, old habits returned to roost. Even after a coaching session, Halep could not settle down. She gestured in anger and frustration, and smacked her racket on the court in disgust.
“He told me I was rushing,” Halep told ESPN. “I had to wait a little bit for the higher balls. So I did what he said.”
Losing the first set, though, had its irony.
Halep became the first woman since Serena Williams won the title in 2001 – the last time she played Indian Wells before this year – to lose the opening set and win the title. Williams would have met Halep in the semifinal, had the American not withdrawn with a knee injury.
The high loopy balls deep to Halep’s forehands and backhands were key tactics from Jankovic. At 5-foot-6, Halep is one of the shorter women on tour. Coupled with the high-bouncing court, Jankovic’s choice of shots seemed preordained. Once Halep adjusted her timing and improved her serve, and Jankovic became more and more nervous, the tactics failed to produce positive results.
“Where to begin,” Jankovic said, with a sigh. “I won the first set. I was up a break in the second and I put myself in the position to win the match, to serve it out. I think at the end of the second set I got a little bit nervous. I got a little bit tentative, and that was my big mistake.”
But Jankovic’s shots had their intended effects.
“She knew how to play me today and make more mistakes,” Halep said. “It was difficult to me to take that balls very and without power. I just try to stay cool, to make her run a lot.”
Both women played multiple three-sets matches over the course of the tournament. All but one of Halep’s rounds went the distance. All of Jankovic’s matches went three, as well, with the exception of the quarterfinal against qualifier Lesia Tsurenko. She retired in the second set.
At the start of the third, records suggested the match would be either woman’s to win. Halep had a 6-0 record in three-set matches while Jankovic was right behind her with a 5-0 record.
But it wasn’t about records.
It was more about serving.
She emphatically told coach Chip Brooks, at one changeover, that she could not hold her serve. Ironic, when you consider it was the changeover before she served for the match at 6-2, *5-4.
“I have to get my first serve in,” Jankovic insisted, as he tapped her knee and said, “Let’s go brother.”
Jankovic lost three games in a row after that discussion, which gave Halep the second set and breathing room to work her magic.
“I let her come back in the match,” Jankovic admitted. “Then in the third … it was so close. But I needed to come up with better serves, better shots. Afterwards, she was such a tough player. I did not execute when it mattered.”
Jankovic joked about their age disparity, in the awards presentation. She turned 30 last month and Halep is 23.
“She’s the younger one,” Jankovic said, laughing. “She just kept running. Fans are inspiring me to run after another ball when I cannot do anymore.”
Both women are known for their court coverage, and they didn’t disappoint in that category today. As the third set progressed so did the number of shots per rally, with one reaching 25. Often times, both were left bent over gasping for air behind their respective baselines.
A win here, however, has also left Halep striving for more.
“This tournament gives me a lot of confidence that I can be there, I can win every tournament, so now I have more confidence that I can win a Grand Slam,” Halep told the press. “But, still, I am very far. I just want to keep this goal in mind.”