It didn’t take Simona Halep long to realize she was in for a long day at the office.
Her first service game saw her double fault four times on her way to handing an early break to her opponent, as the unseeded Brazilian, Beatriz Haddad Maia, jumped out to a quick 3-0 first-set advantage.
“Terrible,” was the word the 15th seed used to describe her off-key delivery Sunday at the start of the National Bank Open women’s final in Toronto. “… I don’t know if it happened before. But sometimes you have to accept that you are not great in some moments.”
As the old maxim goes, though, form is temporary, but class is permanent.
The two-time Grand Slam champion soon recovered hers, and a little more than two hours later found herself in a familiar position – delivering a speech after claiming this Canadian WTA Tour event for the third time in her career courtesy of a 6-3, 2-6, 6-3 victory.
The win – her first in Toronto after taking the event in 2016 and 2018 in Montreal – should be enough to propel the former world No. 1 up to sixth when the new rankings are released. It’s her first time in the top 10 in more than a year, and comes after she said earlier in 2022 that she had considered retiring as her form faltered.
“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,” Halep said. “So it’s a very special moment. I will enjoy it. I will give myself credit. I’m just dreaming for more.”
Given the calibre of the field in Toronto, one that included 18 of the world’s top 20 players, and 14 Grand Slam champions, it was no small feat ending up on top. But the Romanian, who made it to the semi-finals before dropping her first set, reached her 18th final at a WTA 1000 event, tying the retiring Serena Williams for the record. The WTA 1000 level was introduced to the tour in 2009.
“This tournament is … a great tournament. Many players are playing here. Many top players, actually,” she said after clinching her 24th career tournament title.
Halep’s victory removed some of the shine off what was a breakout week for Haddad Maia. The native of Sao Paulo, who was ranked 183rd in the world a year ago, has forced the world of tennis to sit up and take notice over the past seven days. She overcame a seeded opponent in every round other than the first one, claiming upset victories over Canada’s Leylah Fernandez, world No. 1 Iga Swiatek and reigning Olympic champion Belinda Bencic.
Unfortunately, she fell one set short of completing what would have been a giant-killing run for the ages, with the former French Open and Wimbledon champion proving just too resilient. Halep rebounded from her poor start to win six straight games to take the first set, before breaking Haddad Maia twice in the first four games in the third to take a stranglehold on the match.
“Tennis is like that: Sometimes you win, sometimes we learn,” the Brazilian said. “Today, it’s a day to learn.”
Having a countrywoman in the final of the National Bank Open isn’t the showpiece sporting event that the majority of Brazilians have their eye on this year – that one takes place in Qatar in December – but for a country as starved of tennis success as Brazil, it was a welcome development.
The canary-yellow shirts of Haddad Maia’s native soccer team were out in force throughout Sobeys Stadium, complete with the requisite mononymous names on the back. So it was that Ronaldo – the original, Brazilian one – Neymar and others were scattered around the arena to watch the first player from their country to make the final of a WTA 1000 event.
Haddad Maia appreciated the home support, though she admits her fellow Brazilians might need some time to get into the tennis groove.
“I think Brazilians are not used to screaming for tennis,” she said. “Sometimes they scream a little bit more. They think they are in a soccer game.
“I was happy to hear a lot of ‘Bia, come on Bia,’ ‘Vamos Bia, keep fighting.’ So, yeah, it’s special to feel that everybody in Brazil is watching on TV and following tennis because of me.”
Haddad Maia, 26, has advanced in leaps and bounds this year, and is projected to reach a career high of No. 16 when the WTA rankings are released this week. She claimed her first two tour titles on grass earlier this year at pre-Wimbledon warmup events in Nottingham and Birmingham, beating Halep in three sets in the latter event.
As a six-foot left-hander – the first lefty to reach the Canadian Open final since Petra Kvitova 10 years ago – she also presents a number of matchup problems, as the 5-foot-6 Halep found on Sunday, with the different spin of the ball causing the eventual champion numerous headaches.
Given the dearth of Brazilian success on the WTA Tour – Haddad Maia’s recent grass-court successes were the first WTA Tour titles for someone from South America’s largest country since Teliana Pereira in 2015 – the resident of Rio de Janeiro recognizes her position as a role model.
“It’s not easy being a Brazilian to play here and to build our tennis level around the tour,” she said. “But, yeah, I think one of my goals is not to be [at] the top but to be [at] the top and make a difference in someone else’s life.
“Now I hope I can help children to make their dreams come true, to believe in themselves. Because if I’m now here in the top 20, for sure they can be here as well.”