MASON, Ohio -- No matter who wins Sunday’s women’s singles title at the Western & Southern Open, history will be made.
The stage is set for a 2 p.m. showdown between World No. 2 Simona Halep and No. 6 Garbine Muguruza, two players who have never hoisted the Rookwood Cup at the Lindner Family Tennis Center.
They’ve come close – both were semifinalists last year, and Halep was a 2015 finalist – but neither tennis player has emerged victorious in the Premier 5 event. The stakes are significant, too, as the winner pockets $522,450 and 900 WTA ranking points; the runner-up receives $260,970 and 585 points.
And then there’s the matter of the No. 1 ranking.
Muguruza’s semifinal defeat of current No. 1 Karolina Pliskova, the defending W&S Open champion, opened the door for Halep. If the Romanian player wins the championship, she’ll be the new No. 1 next week.
Halep is eager to achieve the feat. It has been on her mind for the last 3 months.
“I want to win it,” Halep said. “So if it’s gonna be just to win a match and to get there, it's going to be more special and nicer for me.”
How the semifinals were set
Fourth-seeded Muguruza was the first player to secure a finals bid Saturday by dispatching top-seeded Pliskova 6-3, 6-2 on Center Court. She snuffed the Czech’s bid to become the first female to win back-to-back W&S Open titles since Serena Williams did it in 2014 and 2015.
Muguruza promptly went up a break as Pliskova slogged through unforced errors. Pliskova requested her coach midway through the match but the Spaniard surged ahead 5-3, executed another break and nabbed the set.
Pliskova turned up her aggressiveness early in the second set. That upped the ante for Muguruza, too.
“I wasn’t panicking at any moment, because I know she returns very well. I knew I was going to be in danger at some point, so I stayed calm. I managed, don’t lose the courage, and I turned (it) around,” Muguruza said.
Pliskova ultimately fended off four match points, but Muguruza converted the fifth to secure the win. The Czech’s 28 unforced errors throughout played into an outing that lasted 79 minutes.
“I think she played very solid today, not missing much and obviously serving well. The percentage from her side was pretty high, as well. Everything started, I think even in the first game of the first set, my serve, and then obviously the second game. I had some chances in the second set,” Pliskova said.
In the other semifinal, second-seeded Halep continued her week of straight sets victories. She had little trouble handling wild card Sloane Stephens in a 6-2, 6-1 rout.
Halep credited her quarterfinal victory over Johanna Konta for helping her play her “best match” on hard courts so far.
“I think the match from yesterday gave me a lot of confidence, and since yesterday I started to feel the game, to feel that I can hit the ball. So today was much better. I moved very well today. I just feel good. That’s why maybe I can play. I have no pressure,” Halep said.
Halep went up a double-break early in both sets and was never seriously challenged by the American, who was playing in her fourth tournament since returning from foot surgery and an 11-month layoff from the sport.
Stephens was the first wild card to reach the final four since Venus Williams did in 2012, but she hit a wall against the unflinching Halep. The latter player amassed 11 winners, won 91 percent of her second serve points and converted five break points to move on.
Stephens played three matches in 24 hours due to a rain-affected schedule Friday. She thought it finally caught up with her.
“I actually didn’t think I played that badly,” Stephens said. “I think she’s just a little bit fresher and just wasn’t a great day.”
Sizing up the championship
Although Muguruza has a 2-1 career edge against Halep, they haven’t played in two years. Halep last beat Muguruza on clay at Stuttgart in 2015, a match that has little bearing on a North American hard court tour.
Still, Muguruza – playing in her first final on American soil – knows Halep is a tough foe. The Romanian has reached at least the quarterfinals of her last 11 tournaments.
“It was a very long time that I don’t play with Halep, but she’s playing very good. She’s strong and, you know, she has a lot of matches. I saw her a little bit these days, so tough. Solid opponent,” Muguruza said.
To reach the coveted top ranking and win the W&S Open for the first time, Halep must successfully navigate the challenges Muguruza presents. The Spaniard excels on big stages; she won Wimbledon in July and the French Open in 2016.
“She’s very aggressive. She stays close to the baseline and she hits everything. I have just to respond fast and strong with my legs, move well, and just to push her back,” Halep said. “I’ll try everything tomorrow.”