After slotting one final forehand winner past Andrea Petkovic in Thursday’s Roland Garros semi-finals, Simona Halep dropped her racquet and raised her arms in triumph, a look of uninhibited joy beaming across her face.
Yet almost as soon as she had enjoyed that blissful moment, Halep was looking ahead to her next challenge. Asked on Philippe Chatrier Court her thoughts on facing Maria Sharapova in the final, the Romanian answered: “Why not? Maybe I will take the revenge.”
The revenge she seeks is for her loss to Sharapova in last month’s Madrid final, a match in which she won the first set 6-1 before the Russian embarked on one of her patented comebacks to ultimately triumph in three sets.
Sharapova has been making a habit of the epic comeback at Roland Garros as well. For the third match in a row, she dropped the opening set before storming back to win, her latest victim being Eugenie Bouchard after similar victories over Samantha Stosur and Garbine Muguruza. “I don't know how I have to play to beat Maria, (or) if I can beat Maria, better to say,” Halep said with a laugh.
“But I have to take that revenge. I will fight for this one. I played a really good match in Madrid first set. I started really well. I was very fast on court, and I opened the angles very well. But she came back very, very well and she hit strong, stronger than me at that moment.
“Now, I have to be aggressive again, to play fast, like my style, and to stay there with the nerves. It will be a tough moment for me. I know. I'm sure that will be. But I have to be happy and just to enjoy. I cannot say how I will feel Saturday. I cannot now. I don't know how is it to play a final of a Grand Slam.”
That’s because she’s never before even been close to this stage of a major. Coming into Roland Garros two weeks ago, her best performance at a major had been her run to the quarter-finals at Australian Open 2014. But following a comprehensive fortnight in Paris that has seen her mow down a host of impressive opposition – all without the loss of a set – she has resoundingly set a new personal benchmark.
It’s the latest in a long line of milestones for the likeable 22-year-old. This time last year, she was ranked world No.57. Come Monday, she will be third. In that space of time she has won an extraordinary seven titles and had gone from relative unknown to one of the hottest prospects in the women’s game.
Halep explains that it all clicked for her in Rome 2013 following her win over then-world No.4 Agnieszka Radwanska in the second round. “I thought after that match that I can play at higher level to beat the top players. I started to be more aggressive. At that moment I had more confidence in myself,” she revealed.
“But today at this tournament it's more … I mean, it's fantastic. Now I have emotions also to speak and to say how I feel. It's incredible, and I want just for the final to play a good match.”
She will most certainly have to bring her highest level to the court. Sharapova is one of the game’s greatest competitors on the big stage, and own one each of tennis’s four grandest titles. Her power and experience dwarf that of Halep, who has also admitted to suffering from nerves throughout this French Open fortnight.
She will have to keep them and her opponent in check if she is to become the first Romanian to win a major since her manager, Virginia Ruzici, triumphed right here at this very venue in 1978.
“I have nothing to lose. I will keep this in my mind always … Of course I know that it will be very tough to manage the emotions, but I will try my best at that moment,” Halep said.
“She (Sharapova) is very tough player, so will be a tough match. I will do everything, like I said, and I will try to stay relaxed and to hit, to play my game. Because if I play my game relaxed and with pleasure, to be aggressive and to play fast, I think I have chances.”