The road to the French Open is heating up on the WTA tour. The unpredictability of the WTA tour in 2017 has continued at the Mutua Madrid Open. However, the ninth edition of the Mutua Madrid Open sees normality with defending champion Simona Halep taking on 14th seed Kristina Mladenovic, who is enjoying the best season in her career. The third seed has made history at the Caja Magica becoming the first woman to reach three finals in the Spanish capital.
Furthermore, should Halep win this tournament, she will join Serena Williams and Petra Kvitova as the only three players to win this tournament twice. She will also join Williams as the only two players to retain the title. The Romanian is in a rich vein of form ahead of the second Grand Slam tournament of the year, where she is considered as one of the favourites to win the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen after finishing as a runner-up to Maria Sharapova in 2014.
The 14th seed is competing in the biggest final of her career at the Premier Mandatory event in Madrid. The Frenchwoman is competing in her seventh WTA final and an impressive tour-high of four finals of the year. The 23-year-old won her first career title at the Premier event in St.Petersburg defeating Yulia Putinsteva in the final.
But she lost to Lesia Tsurenko in the final of the International-level event in Acapulco and to Laura Siegemund last month at the premier-level Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart. Mladenovic's decision to stop playing doubles with compatriot Caroline Garcia has paid off. The 23-year-old is due to rise to a career-high ranking of 14 at the end of the tournament but should she claim the biggest title of her career, she will be the new world number 13.
Halep's route to the final
The defending champion began her title defence against Kristyna Pliskova and it was a comfortable 6-1, 6-2 victory for the former world number two. The 2014 French Open finalist had a battle of Grand Slam finalists with 2015 US Open runner-up Roberta Vinci in the second round. Halep was the overwhelming favourite but it turned out to be a tough test for the Romanian. The defending champion's title defence was in major jeopardy, but she defeated the Italian, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (2). Once again, Halep was tested in the third round as she was up against 2011 US Open champion Sam Stosur in a rematch of last year's semifinal clash.
It was another three-set battle but the defending champion came through unscathed, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4. From those two close encounters, Halep went to another level in her quarterfinal and semifinal matches. The defending champion thrashed this year's Australian Open semifinalist Coco Vandeweghe, 6-1, 6-1 and despite going a break down in the second set, Halep eased past last year's US Open quarterfinalist Anastasija Sevastova, 6-2, 6-3 to reach her third Mutua Madrid Open final in four years.
Mladenovic's route to the final
The 14th seeded Frenchwoman had to recover from a set down to force a final set against Croatia's Ana Konjuh, who reached her first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the US Open last year. However, the Croat retired at the end of the second set, sending Mladenovic through into the second round. The 14th seed had a tough second round encounter with Lauren Davis. Nevertheless, Mladenovic survived a scare, dispatching the diminutive American, 6-3, 1-6, 7-6 (1). In the third round, the 23-year-old thrashed her compatriot Oceane Dodin, 6-2, 6-1 in an all-French affair.
Like Halep, Mladenovic won her quarterfinal and semifinal encounters in straight sets. In the quarterfinals, she dispatched Halep's compatriot Sorana Cirstea, who reached the quarterfinals for the second successive year, and it was a 6-4, 6-4 victory for Mladenovic. In her second Premier Mandatory semifinal, Mladenovic defeated her doubles partner, the 2015 finalist and eighth seed Svetlana Kuznetsova, another favourite for the French Open title. It was a 6-4, 7-6 (4) victory for Mladenovic, who's going to be competing in the biggest final of her career.
The two seeded players have met on four occasions, and surprisingly, Mladenovic has a 3-1 lead in their head-to-head encounters. Mladenovic defeated Halep in front of her home crowd in Paris in 2014 in straight sets, and she followed this up with a quarterfinal victory on the grass courts at the Aegon Classic in Birmingham, 2-6, 6-0, 7-6 (4). Halep gained her first victory over Mladenovic in the second round of the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati in 2015 in three tight sets. Once again, Mladenovic recorded an impressive victory over Halep in the third round of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, 6-3, 6-3.
Who wins the championship?
Halep has a vast experience in these big finals in contrast to Mladenovic. The Romanian is through to her fourth Premier Mandatory final, with three of them taking place in Madrid. Halep's movement on the red dirt has been impressive all week, and the third seed will be looking to retain her title. She will need to serve well against Mladenovic, and she will look to dominate proceedings from the baseline and dictate the rallies. However, Mladenovic has been in scintillating all week as well, and her all-court game could pose more problems for Halep.
The 14th seed will need to serve well and hope her forehand is firing on all cylinders. Also from playing doubles, Mladenovic doesn't hesitate to come forward to the net and finish off points quickly. For her height, the Frenchwoman has good movement on clay, and this could be her moment to claim a big title. Elena Vesnina and Johanna Konta both won their first Premier Mandatory titles against players who already have won them in the past. Can Mladenovic make it three out of three? or will Halep resume normality? This should be an interesting final but the former world number two should have a little too much for Mladenovic on their first meeting on clay.
This final will take place on the Manolo Santana court at not before 7pm local time, and this is the biggest clay court event outside of the French Open, so the winner of this match will head into the French Open with a lot of confidence.
Prediction: Halep to retain the title in straight sets.