Simona Halep defeated Elena Rybakina in the third round of the US Open in an exciting three-set match.
In only her fifth match coming back from injury, Halep showed she can still play close to her highest level, pulling out all the stops to down the 22-year-old. Here’s how Halep reached her first fourth round at the US Open since 2016.
First Set: Simona Halep 7-6 (11)
The match started with Halep playing a bit out of sorts. It looked as though her injury had gotten the better of her, as she struggled to hold her own in the longer rallies. Another long rally lost and Halep slapped her thigh in frustration, the bearer of her injury. The Romanian fell down 3-0 fairly quickly.
Some shock therapy on the injury seemed to have done the trick, however, as Halep burst into life, reeling off the next three games. Another momentum swing as Halep missed a backhand by a hair and Rybakina was serving for the set at 5-3. Halep knuckled down in the knick of time – down 40-30, she hit an unreturnable return and targeted the forehand on the next two points. Break back to Halep.
Suddenly, it was all Halep as Rybakina’s forehand took a beating. Easy service hold followed by an easy break and it was Halep’s turn to serve for the set. Testament to her time away from the court, however, Halep went AWOL for game, getting broken to love. Rybakina had forced a tiebreak.
If you thought that was dramatic… Halep moved ahead 6-2 with some outstanding play. Rybakina stayed consistent, showing remarkable defensive skills for being 6,0 feet tall, and four set points came and went. The pair took turns painting the lines, Halep saving four set points and Rybakina saving another two. The pressure built and built but it was the Kazakh that eventually blinked, double faulting to hand the Grand Slam champion the first set, 13-11 in a tiebreak.
Second Set: Elena Rybakina 6-4
It was difficult to determine who was the veteran going into the second set, Halep angrily gesturing to herself and her box.
Rybakina, contrastingly, looked completely unperturbed. She rattled off two breaks and a service hold with some awesome forehands, almost daring Halep to continue targeting that side. The Romanian’s form was like a rollercoaster, but she hit full-flow to get the double break back (also helped by three double faults from Rybakina).
With Halep 40-15 up at 4-4, Rybakina raised her level again, showcasing aggression that very few are able to match. The mental strength from the young player was outstanding and will be a hallmark of her game for years to come. She sealed the set with three aces in one game.
Third Set: Simona Halep 6-3
Halep’s turn to blink as a double fault cost her the first game of the set.
Rybakina had a game point in her next game but Halep showed what separates the best from the rest. She reached a level she hadn’t reached in the match so far, winning that game and playing the point of the match at 1-1 30-0, her movement as agile as ever. As Halep settled into a consistently great level, Rybakina played the odd errant forehand here, a few missed first serves there – it was all Halep needed to sprint for the finish line, planting a few more balls on the line to seal the set, 6-3.
What a match from both players. Elena Rybakina is sure to be a mainstay on the tour for years to come, her potential ranking likely reflective of a place in the top-10 if she continues to work hard.
Halep downplayed her level in her post-match interview, and it’s easy to understand why. There were brief moments where Halep fell away completely. But when she peaked, she was unplayable, and she did peak for long swathes of the match. She should take a lot of heart from this – the more she plays, the easier it will be to continuously hit top-form in the future.
Simona Halep will play Daria Kasatkina or Elina Svitolina next round. If she plays close to the level she played Friday, I’d make her the favorite to win either match-up.
Main Photo from Getty.