Simona Halep defeats Beatriz Haddad Maia to capture third National Bank Open title

Simona Halep defeated Beatriz Haddad Maia in the National Bank Open final on Sunday to earn her third Canadian title. (Getty Images)
Simona Halep defeated Beatriz Haddad Maia in the National Bank Open final on Sunday to earn her third Canadian title. (Getty Images)

In a tournament that was largely defined by power players crushing winners from the baseline, Simona Halep was able to weather the storm, and it’s the primary reason why she’s in an elite club as a three-time champion of the National Bank Open.

Squaring off against upstart Beatriz Haddad Maia in the final, Halep, who entered the tournament as the No. 15 seed, was able to fend off the Brazilian’s blistering serve, and matched her shot-for-shot, displaying an unparalleled ability to track down balls and redirect her opponents, countering their pace.

Halep joins elite company with the win, joining Serena Williams, Monica Seles, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova as the only three-time champions of the tournament, post World War II. The 30-year-old Romanian entered the tournament as the No. 15 seed, defeating Donna Vekic, Zhang Shuai, Jil Teichmann, No. 10 Coco Gauff and No. 7 Jessica Pegula, before taking down Haddad Maia in front of a packed crowd Sunday afternoon at Sobeys Stadium. As a result of Sunday’s victory, Halep is back where she belongs, as the No. 6 seed when Monday’s rankings are released.

“Canada is a special place for me. I've won in Montreal two times, but here never, so today is a special day,” Halep said during her post-match interview on-court.

“All the Romanians, all the Canadians, all the Brazilians, thanks for coming today and supporting us, it was a great atmosphere.”

Haddad Maia emerged as the breakout star of the tournament, and will be in the top 20 when the rankings are rereleased Monday. The 2022 finalist was able to mix up her service game with different velocities, ranging from 130-188 kilometers per hour. In a similar vein to a power pitcher like New York Yankees star Gerrit Cole, Haddad Maia sent her fastball, changeup and slider at opponents with disarming ease, and in the process, knocked off No. 13 Leylah Annie Fernandez (a crowd favourite), No. 1 Iga Swiatek, No. 12 Belinda Bencic and No. 14 Karolina Pliskova in rapid succession, before Halep figured out how to match her brute force.

“When you don't have the right thoughts in the right way, it's not about serving, it's also the forehand, the backhand, everything get a little bit out of the normal because I think the mind controls everything,” Haddad Maia told reporters post-match.

Halep quietly dominated this event, dropping just two sets throughout the competition, but it wasn’t always smooth sailing in the final. Haddad Maia won the first three games of the first set, showing a tried and true formula, overpowering Halep in first service games, while pushing Halep from the baseline. It worked against Swiatek — who had previously won 37 consecutive matches earlier this season. It worked against Bencic, whose serve and two-hand backhand were among the most impressive shots seen in the whole tournament. It worked against Pliskova, who was able to send some blistering returns of her own.

The primary difference here is that Halep relied on her guile, lateral agility and top spin to counter the 26-year-old Brazilian, showing a display of technical mastery that was a tier above the rest of the tour. Halep also countered another power player in Jessica Pegula during the semifinal, perhaps operating as a precursor to Sunday’s finale. Unlike Haddad Maia, whose pace and ability to throw change-ups, relative to her blistering fastball, Halep operated more like Greg Maddux, working efficiently with serves in the 120-150 kilometers per hour range, while hitting precisely targeted returns, painting corners of the court that Haddad Maia, and the rest of the field, couldn’t get to.

“Yeah, at the start it was really tough,” Halep told Yahoo Sports post-match about Haddad Maia’s serve and forehand. “And she's a lefty, so it's coming different, the spin. She's very powerful. She's solid. And it's never easy to play against her. I played on grass court. She beat me a few weeks ago, a few months ago. So I knew that it was going to be a good challenge and a good fight. So it's been a battle today, and I'm really happy that I could actually be stronger in the important moments.”

This week, in many ways, was a celebration of tennis writ large and it would be a disservice to write about the tournament without paying particular attention to the fans. During a week where Serena Williams announced her imminent retirement, the fans showed up in vocal droves — perhaps at times, a bit too vocal, breaking some etiquette rules — but Sunday’s final brought out the best of what the supporters have to offer. There were large Romanian and Brazilian factions in the seats, creating a fever-pitch atmosphere surrounding the two finalists. In section 125, a Halep supporter rocked an Adidas “Halepeno” t-shirt, some truly spectacular drip among the large swaths of Romanian flags and stans situated all over the court. We caught more than a handful of Brazil national team soccer jerseys too, so in the truest spirit of Toronto, this was a multinational event that just happened to occur in the northwest quadrant of the city.

Halep’s supporters were out in full force and galvanized her, while trailing 3-0. SI-MONA, SI-MONA, SI-MONA, the rally cry went, and though the champion won this match on her own technical precision and relentless stamina, you’d have to think the vigorous support she received played a factor in winning six consecutive games to close out the first set.

“The Romanian fans are very, very important to our tournament. They create an electric atmosphere. They're great fans. They're the type of fans you want at every tournament. With their flag waving and their chanting,” tournament director Karl Hale told the press prior to Sunday’s final.

“I can tell you, it's in the hundreds that come to all of her matches. And we have a lot of different groups that do that with their different cultures. But they're a special group for Halep. So what a final we're going to be in for today. So we're looking forward to it.”

And now Simona Halep is back among rarefied air, both in the context of this tournament on a micro level, and in the world of tennis on a macro scale. She did it by countering her opponents, who were bullying the competition on pure strength, with a level of grace and accuracy that no one else had. So it’s only fitting she stands alone, in what was an outstanding week of tennis overall.

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