French Open 2018

French Open 2018: Simona Halep reaffirms No1 – sets Stephens final; Makarova and Vesnina debut at the top

Simona Halep will take on Sloane Stephens in the French Open final on Saturday

Asked this week about the significance of keeping the No1 ranking, Simona Halep was adamant: “Zero… now my goals are different.”

She meant the winning of a Major, the crowning title of any player’s career, and she had come within one win of being a Major champion three times, twice at Roland Garros.

Last year, the title match in Paris would have given her the double whammy: her first ‘big one’ and the No1. She came within touching distance of both before Jelena Ostapenko surged back from a set down to claim the title.

In Australia this year, having finally achieved the No1 ranking during the Asian swing last autumn, Halep played Caroline Wozniacki in near identical circumstances: The Dane had risen to No1 years before, but had never managed to win a Major. In Melbourne, she reclaimed No1 and got that ‘big one’, all at the expense of Halep.

But strong performances through Doha, Indian Wells, Madrid and Rome ensured Halep would be at No1 by the time she made her next assault on Major glory in Paris.

But as was the case through much of the last year, Roland Garros began with all kinds of possibilities for the top spot. Indeed, when the draw was made, no fewer than six women were in the frame. Admittedly Elina Svitolina, Karolina Pliskova and Caroline Garcia were outside bets, and once the former two had failed to reach the fourth round, they were out of contention.

By the time Garcia entered a fourth-round match against former No1 Angelique Kerber, she also knew that she could not rise to the top even if she won the title.

And then Wozniacki’s fourth-round loss to Daria Kasatkina left the door open for an all or nothing battle for No1 between Halep and Muguruza in their semi-final showdown.

It was expected to be a close call, an intense contest between two contrasting styles and between a current No1 and former No1. Add into the equation that the tall Spaniard had won three of their four previous matches, and had already won the French Open title in 2016, and she was expected to test Halep to the limits.

In the event, the super-fit, super-aggressive and supremely confident Romanian brought her best attacking and defensive qualities to court. She raced to a 5-0 lead before Muguruza got on the board with a break of her own. But Halep took advantage of a poor serving day by the Spaniard to break again for the set, 6-1.

Muguruza was more composed and assured as she began the second set, held serve at last, and got a quick break to open a 3-1 lead.

But Halep broke to draw level at 4-4, and then found her pugnacious best against some relentless power-play from Muguruza in the ninth game. The Spaniard pressed through seven deuces and had three break chances, but after 14 minutes, Halep held, 5-4, pumped her fist, and strode to her chair with ‘winner’ written all over her body-language.

As is so often the case when one player is unable to take advantage of what would be a pivotal opportunity, the let-down leaves them vulnerable in the next game. And so it proved. Halep broke to love for set, match, and her fourth Major final, 6-4.

She summed up just how key those closing games had been:

“The fact that I could win that long game, I won the next one easy, so it was a little bit of a mental part in the game. I just didn’t give up.

“I stayed calm. I stayed focused, and I didn’t give up, which is the most important thing in my game. Then I was very confident that I can finish.”

That sums up the player that is Halep, who will now certainly leave Paris as world No1, and has become the fans’ favourite, and many experts’ favourite too, to at last lift the trophy in Paris.

However, she will first have to beat the current US Open champion, Sloane Stephens, who beat the runner-up in New York, compatriot and friend Madison Keys, 6-4, 6-4.

This time last year, Stephens was still on crutches as she recovered from the ankle surgery that followed the 2016 Olympics. She only returned to the tour at Wimbledon, and went on to reach the semis in Toronto and Cincinnati before that 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 has done.

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. That Keys had come through the draw even more impressively, without dropping a set, made Stephens’ dominant win over her friend all the more notable.

Stephens has a 2-5 deficit against Halep, but already knows she will break the top four in the ranks for the first time. Above her will be Halep at No1, Wozniacki at No2 and Muguruza No3—but beware Stephens come Wimbledon. She is the only one among the quartet with no points to defend through the grass swing—well just 10, from her first-round exit at SW19.

Makarova and Vesnina debut at No1 in doubles

The women’s singles No1 ranking has not been the only one on the line in Paris, and the WTA has confirmed that the Russian team of Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina will reach the top of the doubles rankings next week for the first time, despite making early exits at Roland Garros.

The duo will become the 13th pair to hold the joint No1 spot, and the second and third from their country to be No1 in the doubles rankings.

The Russians reached their seventh Major final at the Australian Open, the final at Indian Wells, and picked up their 12th doubles trophy at the Madrid Open. And among those 12 titles, Makarova and Vesnina have won three Majors, at 2013 Roland Garros, 2014 US Open, and 2017 Wimbledon, as well as the WTA Finals in Singapore in 2016. They also won the gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

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