Halep was up first in the Armeec Arena on Saturday, taking on second seed Ana Ivanovic in the semi-finals. Ivanovic’s legions of fans had high hopes that their woman could spring a surprise, especially after she beat Stosur in the round robin stage earlier in the week. Sure enough, the Serb played as well as she has done all year in the opening set, bossing Halep from the back of the court to take it 6-2.
But the Romanian recovered brilliantly in the second, securing a double break of her own. Despite a back ailment, Halep rediscovered the form that has brought her five titles this season, using sharp angles and changes of pace to bamboozle the big-hitting Ivanovic. She had the momentum heading into the decider, only for Ivanovic to take the upper hand again and move ahead 3-0. Although not the most confident of closers, the former French Open champion looked ready to record one of her best wins of the year.
Once more, however, Halep came charging back. With Ivanovic now bothered by an injury of her own, the world number 14 won the last six games of the match to complete a 2-6, 6-1, 6-3 victory and reach her sixth final of the year.
Stosur was also pushed to three sets in her last four clash with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. After dominating the opening set 6-1, she dropped the second set by the same scoreline, throwing in the unforced errors and misjudged shots that have cost her so dearly throughout 2013. Yet the Aussie pressured the Pavlyuchenkova serve relentlessly in the decider, and earned a vital break in the fourth game. Serving brilliantly herself, Stosur held on to the advantage and closed out the 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 triumph with her fourth ace.
It’s fitting that the Sofia final should be contested by the first and fourth seeds. Besides Serena Williams, no one has won as much as Halep and Stosur recently: Halep is on an eight match winning streak, a run that included the Kremlin Cup title, and Stosur has won 12 of her last 14 matches, hoisting the trophy in Osaka and finishing runner-up to Halep in Moscow.
The outcome of that clash two weeks ago – Halep won 7-6(1), 6-2 – will give the 22-year-old a major boost heading into Sunday’s final. An aggressive baseliner who also knows when to put the ball in play and let her opponent go for too much, Halep will aim to pressure Stosur on the return while holding her own serve convincingly. Not as powerful as Stosur, she will use slice to extend the rallies and vary pace and spin to disrupt her opponent’s timing.
Of course, Stosur at her best is a top five player, and if all aspects of her game are firing today she’ll be almost impossible to beat. The big first serve, the “kick” second serve and her proficiency at the net are a devastating combination; against Pavlyuchenkova, she didn’t hesitate to punish short balls. But a nerveless, error-free Stosur performance can never be taken for granted, and she’ll be facing one of the tour’s most dogged competitors in the Tournament of Champions final. The 2011 US Open winner will make this close for a set and a half, but ultimately she’ll be broken down by Halep’s tireless retrieving and metronomic consistency.
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