In the first match of the 2016 WTA Finals in Singapore, Simona Halep and Madison Keys will resume their rivalry with a fourth match in as many months. Halep has gone 3-0 in 2016 but can Keys start her Singapore experience with a booming win?
Halep has qualified for her third consecutive WTA Finals after a super consistent year on the WTA tour. Qualifying for Singapore didn’t look likely though at the start of the year as Halep was plagued by injuries with achilles and stomach problems; she was forced to withdraw from Brisbane and lost four consecutive matches between Sydney and Doha. Finally fit and healthy, Halep began to produce the results akin to those that have helped to establish herself as a top ten stalwart over the past few years.
The Romanian player reached back-to-back quarter-finals at the duo of Premier Mandatory events in March at Indian Wells and Miami, and her season really took off during the clay court season where she won her first title of the year in Madrid. She went onto register herself as one of, if not the most consistent performer between May and September. Halep reached the second week of the last three Slams of the year and won two more titles in Bucharest and Montreal.
Halep’s Asian campaign didn’t quite have the same success; while she reached the semi-finals of Wuhan, Halep suffered comprehensive losses at her last two tournaments to Petra Kvitova (1-6 2-6, Wuhan SFs) and Zhang Shuai (0-6 3-6, Beijing R16). It’s been a great year for Halep but the last two losses were just reminders that she still has the tendency to float away from matches against a peaking opponent.
Keys had shown bursts of brilliance prior to 2016 without the consistency; while she has only one title to her name this year in Birmingham, Keys has excelled in producing consistent performances week in, week out and winning ‘ugly’. Much like Halep, Keys had some injury issues at the start of the year and this resulted in her playing a Serena-like schedule through the first half of the year. Of the seven players to have qualified for Singapore (at the time of writing), Keys has played the least number of tournaments at 15 (Halep is next at 17) which makes her achievement of qualifying for Singapore all the more impressive.
One of Keys’s strengths has been her ability to peak for the Slams where she has reached the second week of her last six Majors; of note in 2016 was her improvement on clay where she almost (!) started to come round to actually having the belief that she can perform on this surface. For this reason, her fourth round showing at the French Open was one of her best results of the year, Despite the impressive consistency, she didn’t go past the fourth round at any of the other Slams. The more defensively minded players have also thwarted her on many occasions in 2016. While she has the overwhelming strengths of the serve and the forehand, Keys has never really come close to producing the complete performance.
Head-to-head record: As alluded to above, Halep has enjoyed this match-up in 2016 with wins at Wimbledon (6-7 6-4 6-3, R16), Montreal (7-6 6-3, Final) and Wuhan (6-4 6-2, QF). Halep leads the overall head-to-head, 4-1 with Keys’s only win coming in their very first encounter at the beginning of 2014 in Sydney.
Interesting stat about Halep: Between Madrid and the US Open, Halep’s five losses all came against either Serena Williams or Angelique Kerber… not too shabby! Halep’s record in three set record has been impressive, winning seven of her last eight matches that have gone the distance with the only loss coming to Serena at the US Open.
Interesting stat about Keys: Keys has nailed the consistency this year between tournaments as she has won at least three matches at nine of her last eleven tournaments. However, her sticking point has been against the counter-punchers – Keys is 0-6 against Kerber, Halep and Wozniacki this year.
Final thoughts: Halep has become very comfortable in this match-up with her three wins over Keys this year becoming progressively more straightforward. I’m intrigued to see how playing on a slow indoor court will affect the match-up – Singapore normally starts slow and speeds up a bit during the week. I actually think the court could favour Keys because she’ll have more time to set up her strokes and I think she will be able to hit through it. Halep will bring confidence into this match-up from their matches in 2016 and with the Romanian player, that’s a *big* factor.
Halep’s the safer pick with her recent record but now that Keys has made Singapore, a big goal for her in the second half of the year, there’s just a sneaky feeling I have that she will rise to the occasion. At the least, i’d expect this to be a much closer encounter than their previous two…