It was yet another brutally splendid rally with Simona Halep clinging to her slim advantage over reigning US Open champion Sloane Stephens at the start of the third set in Sunday's Rogers Cup final. But the exchange ended abruptly when Halep, a few feet behind the baseline, threw in an unexpected drop shot -- one that seemed more prayer than tactical ploy.
The shot took Stephens by surprise. As it fell untouched to give Halep a 2-0 lead in the set, she bowed deeply from the waist, looking like she might become sick, sucking precious air in the Canadian heat. It was vintage Halep, who stands just 5-foot-6 but plays the type of tennis you see from a more towering figure.
Halep, ranked No. 1, went on to defeat Stephens after 2 hours and 41 minutes of high drama 7-6 (6), 3-6, 6-4. This was yet another of those epic struggles that are securing Halep a firm place in tennis lore and legend. This year alone, Halep has played four unforgettable matches: a semi and final at the Australian Open, the French Open final and this latest win in Montreal -- the latter two wins over emerging rival Stephens.
"Both matches were crazy good," Halep told reporters in Montreal after the win. "This week it's been an amazing effort. It's brutal, the effort for me."
The effort might become a little less brutal if Halep ever masters her habit of fighting herself as well as her opponent. Her innate streak of negativity robs Halep of the patience and even temperament that are such assets to fellow baseline bashers like Rafael Nadal, who won the men's division of the Rogers Cup a few hours away in Toronto, albeit with considerably less effort.
That tendency to get down on herself was in evidence again in the first set on Sunday, when a brief Stephens resurgence spurred Halep's coach Darren Cahill (also an ESPN tennis analyst) to pay her a sanctioned coaching visit. Once again, his mission was therapeutic rather than tactical, as Cahill tried to extract Halep from the quicksand of negativity. Their relationship has become the tour's most effective advertisement for the WTA's on-court coaching policy.
But Halep seems to resist the easy way. She may be one of those people who thrive on making life difficult for themselves, perpetually drawn to the crazy drop shot, the thrill of living on the edge. As she said in her news conference after struggling through her first-round match back at the French Open, "I think the nerves are really good. It means that you care about what you are doing and your desire is really big."
Back in June at Roland Garros, Halep won her first major in four finals appearances. The question that immediately popped up at the time was whether her breakthrough would also wipe out that tendency to get down on herself. The answer was not encouraging a few weeks later at Wimbledon, where Halep became embroiled in yet another of her signature three-set, knock-down, drag-out battles. She ultimately lost -- after blowing a match point -- to No. 48-ranked Su-Wei Hsieh.
Always refreshingly frank, Halep admitted in Montreal that she was a "little bit down" and unenthusiastic at Wimbledon, still savoring her win in Paris.
"When [my breakthrough] finally happened, I was a little bit too happy and too relaxed," she said. But after Wimbledon, she stowed her rackets for almost three weeks before she began to prepare for the hard-court path to the US Open. "I came [to Montreal] refreshed and with a desire to play official matches again, which was good."
This win suggests Halep is capable of consolidating her place at the top of the game, thereby bringing a greater sense of order to the WTA rankings. Since the dominant Serena Williams went on leave, a cavalcade of women have taken turns winning big events and tossing the No. 1 ranking around like a hot potato. A different woman has won each of the past seven Grand Slam singles titles.
In October of 2017, Halep became the seventh WTA player to attain the No. 1 ranking without having won a Grand Slam event. She's held on to that ranking ever since but for the brief period when Caroline Wozniacki nosed ahead for four weeks ending in mid-February. Halep claims she's prepared to remain in her lofty perch, her appetite for major titles whetted rather than sated.
"I didn't win, like, 20 Grand Slams to lose the motivation," she said. "I won only one. I still have the motivation to be better and to win more, if that's possible."
It seems certain that whatever her final Grand Slam title count, Halep will log a few more entries in the roll of the WTA's most compelling matches. Her emotional roller-coaster ride seems a long way from the end of the track.