French Open 2018: It had to be for Simona Halep, world No1 and Major champion
Simona Halep beats Sloane Stephens to win the French Open and claim her first career Grand Slam title
There is no doubt that Simona Halep had done it the hard way to reach her fourth Major final, her third at Roland Garros.
But then hard work and dedication have never been lacking since the 16-year-old Halep won the junior French Open title a decade ago.
As far back as 2014, the young Romanian worked her way to her first final in Paris in a real breakthrough season during which she made the quarters at the Australian Open, the semis at Wimbledon, and final of the WTA Championships—and she would make the semis at the US Open the following year.
In that same season, she made the quarters, semis and final in the three Premier Mandatories she played, won the Dubai title, and made it to No2 in the ranks by late summer, ending 2014 as No3.
Yet not until the Asian swing last autumn did she finally reach the top of the pile, No1, after countless near misses through the year. One of them was right here, where victory would have taken her to the top: she missed by a whisker to an on-fire Jelena Ostapenko.
She would watch as rivals beat her to the top—Angelique Kerber was followed by Karolina Pliskova and Garbine Muguruza, but finally her turn came, and as she arrived on court on final Saturday at Roland Garros, there was one weight she no longer carried on her shoulders: She reaffirmed the No1 ranking in the semis.
She had earned her latest shot at a Major title the hard way, too, beating No16 seed Elise Mertens, then two Major champions in Kerber and Muguruza. Now she faced a third Major champion, the reigning US Open titlist Sloane Stephens.
The Halep journey, its ups and downs, through assorted injuries and many disappointments, had though brought with it a composure, along with perhaps a little extra steely determination. She said early in the tournament:
“No, I don’t feel pressure. I’m not thinking that I’m favourite, like everyone says. I’m just another player in the draw. I just have confidence that I can win matches, but I’m not thinking about the results.”
Asked how she felt this year compared with last, she added:
“I’m still playing tennis. I’m still working hard every day. Maybe I am smiling more.”
She was: She looked at ease off court, and looked focused and fit on court. And it no longer mattered whether she was or was not No1, as she pointed out: “Now my goals are different.”
She meant, of course, the winning of a Major, the crowning title of any player’s career. There was so much goodwill towards Halep and her campaign, so many admirers of her work ethic and passion. Could she make it fourth time lucky?
Not that Stephens had had things much easier. This time last year, she was still on crutches as she recovered from the ankle surgery that followed the 2016 Olympics. She was ranked 212, did not return to the tour until Wimbledon, and went on to reach the semis in Toronto and Cincinnati before making an astonishing US Open title run.
Her North American success was followed this year by her biggest WTA title, the Premier Mandatory in Miami, but few expected her to replicate her big-time, hard-court tennis on the clay of Roland Garros. That, though, is precisely what she did.
A pivotal match against Camila Giorgi in the third round, where Stephens came back from a set down to win 8-6 in the third, was a launch-pad to some blistering wins over in-form opponents Anett Kontaveit and Daria Kasatkina. Then she dominated her friend Madison Keys to earn her second Major final.
On paper, Halep had the advantage, 5-2, with wins in their last four meetings, including their only Roland Garros match in 2014. But this time, it was Stephens, with her elegant, easy power, who opened the stronger.
She held with ease to open, and then pressed Halep hard in the second game, and while the Romanian won a gruelling 25-shot rally, and held off a severe challenge from the baseline to hold, she was struggling to contain the power from her opponent.
Stephens’ movement off the ball, and some wonderful defence-turned-attack, combined with an ability to find the lines, maintained the pressure, forced errors from Halep, and earned a break, 3-1.
Another stunning rally, mid game, had the crowd on its feet just 20 minutes into the match, and left both women heaving for air. But Stephens continued to come off the better, 4-1. Halep tried to assert her own aggressive game from the baseline, plied the corners, switched direction, but it was barely enough. By the time Stephens held for 5-2, she had forced 12 errors from the Romanian and suffered just two of her own.
The crowd was totally engaged as Stephens struck bullet-loud winners. Then Halep tried an angled drop and earned a break point as she tried to take tactical control. It was exhausting just to watch, but Stephens served out the set, 6-3, after 40 minutes.
Stephens then pulled off a backhand winning pass to earn break points in the very first game of the second set. Halep’s brow was furrowed, her shoulders tense, and no wonder. Stephens raced in for a winning angled drop winner, then sliced a return before throwing up a perfect lob. It got her the break, 1-0, and again Philipp Chatrier was on its feet.
Halep watched aghast as a forehand winner plunged past her, almost overbalanced at the power coming towards her, and Stephens held for 2-0.
Now, though, Halep’s mental toughness—and surely the experience of last year, when it was she who led by a set and a break—worked out a solution. It was time to change the tactics.
She looked for chances to come forward and finish at the net: It worked three times. That seemed to upset the Stephens rhythm, and the American made a sequence of errors to offer up a love break, 2-2.
The reversal of fortune continued—a love hold by Halep—and Stephens was clearly feeling the pressure. Two netted forehands and she was another break down.
Halep threw in a loose game of her own, and they were back on serve, but she determined to keep up her aggressive play, and edged to 5-4: could she force a timely break? The answer came with another backhand thumped wide from the American. Halep was level, 6-4.
On the Romanian side, it was all certainty and energy, on the American side all doubt and errors, now 33 to Halep’s 22 as Stephens came under pressure on her opening serve. The intensity of those long baseline rallies against such a clear-sighted opponent were taking their toll. No matter the effort, Stephens could not power past Halep, and she was broken.
Halep continued to playing on top of the baseline, took returns early, defended superbly, and slotted winners cross-court and down the line. She then plunged in to pick up a drop and reached a lob for a winner on break point. She was in the zone, and the crowd rose again to cheer, 4-0.
On the dot of two hours, then, Halep stepped up to serve for the title, hit her first ace of the match, and closed out set and match, 6-1, with the assurance of a world No1.
She raised her arms and threw back her head: She had finally got her prize—as deserving a champion as you could wish for.
She put it simply:
“I was dreaming for this moment since I started to play tennis. I’m really happy that it happened in Roland Garros in Paris, my special city.
“Last year was tough to talk because I lost this match. Now it’s really emotional because I’m the winner.”
So a decade on from her junior victory, she had the Suzanne Lenglen cup itself. And it would surprise no-one if Halep now went on to win many more.
A word, though, for a generous runner-up, who now knows the heart-break that Halep must have felt last year after holding a similar winning position. She said:
“No matter how hard the adversity that you go through, there is always light at the end of the tunnel, and I’m glad she finally got her light.”
The American will rise to a career-high No4 on Monday, and will surely head higher still in the coming month or so: She has no points to defend in the grass swing—well, 10, from her first-round loss at Wimbledon. The only way, it seems, is up.