Simona Halep comes back from the brink for French Open glory
Yet on a warm Saturday afternoon in Paris, the world No.1 from Romania finally saw her dream come true. She beat Sloane Stephens 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 and beamed from ear to ear as she lifted the French Open trophy high above her head. It was anything but simple as Stephens almost ran away with the match but after two hours and three minutes, Halep was the champion of Roland Garros.
She had been overwhelmed at times, she had been racked with nerves at times, but finally she was the better player, the woman with the drive, the courage and the sheer, unshakeable belief that this was to be her day. The runner-up last year, she had, at last and at her fourth attempt, won her first grand slam trophy.
“Last year was tough to talk before I lost this match,” she said. “In the last game I felt that I could not grip [the racket] any more, so I just tried not to repeat the last year.
“When I was down a break in the second set I said: ‘OK, everything is gone. I just have to start to relax and enjoy the match’. I did everything I could. It’s amazing what is happening now. Honestly I can’t believe it. I have been dreaming of this moment since I started to play tennis. I’m really happy that it’s happened in Roland Garros, in Paris, my special city.”
But for a set and two games, the trophy had seemed so far away. Halep was being bossed around the court and Stephens was making it all look so easy. The eventual champion was desperately trying to dictate play from the baseline but no matter where she leathered the ball, there was the current US Open champion, waiting patiently to belt it back again. And the harder Halep tried, the worse it seemed to get.
The world No.1 was running herself ragged to try and find that square inch of ground to land the winner but Stephens was gliding around the court as if on castors. And those castors were rolling close to the baseline tape; Halep was doing all the hard work several feet behind it. At times, she appeared to be playing the final from the neighbouring arrondissement.
The opening exchanges were like watching one of those old cartoons of the heavyweight boxer holding the lightweight at bay by resting his huge hand on his rival’s head. Halep was punching at thin air while Stephens only had to pick her moment, lean forward and pull off the knock-out punch. After 17 minutes, she had her first break point; after 21 minutes, she was 4-1 ahead.
Such a swift and emphatic lead seemed to relax Halep. This was her third crack at winning the French Open and after the heartbreak of last year when she had a point for a set and 4-0 lead against Jelena Ostapenko before losing, the nerves finally left her. Slowly but surely she hauled the pendulum back to her side of the court. And then, after 40 minutes, she got her first chance, her first break point. At which point, the nerves came galloping back and unable to move her feet, she could do nothing as Stephens grabbed the break point away and went on to close out the set.
As the world No.1 huffed and puffed, Stephens was a picture of tranquillity. Then again, she had good cause: this was the seventh final of her career and in the previous six, she had never been beaten and had dropped only one set. Stephens in a final, then, is not a woman to be messed with.
Set fair for a cruise to the trophy presentation, the American was soon 2-0 up in the second set. That was when two totally unexpected things happened – Halep threw caution to the wind and stepped forward to attack while Stephens became passive. It was a killer combo for the Romanian. Four games went Halep’s way until then, leading 4-2, she threw in a sloppy game and handed the advantage back to Stephens.
The world No.1 knew that her only hope was stick to her guns and see what happened. She was playing more off the front foot, that is true, but she was also doing exactly what she had done in the first set: refusing to let a ball past her if she could possibly help it.
By this stage, that serene air of confidence had long since ebbed from Stephens and as the error count rose, so Halep – solid, dependable and now no longer fraught Halep – moved into the overall lead for the first time. The second set was finally sealed after an hour and 25 minutes and 25 minutes later she was 4-0 ahead.
Halep was relentless, she was pin-point accurate and she was winning her first grand slam title as a true world No.1 should. She had waited long enough.