Halep helpless as Roland-Garros dream evaporates
For so long Simona Halep was the anointed champion-in-waiting at Roland-Garros 2017, but destiny turned its back on her.
What was it Simona Halep said after she came back from match point down to defeat Elina Svitolina in the quarter-final?
“I didn’t realise it was match point. Better that way.”
But this time she knew, all right. There would be just one match point in the Roland-Garros final of 2017. It was 12 minutes past five, after one hour and 59 minutes’ play, when Halep's final serve of the match met with the 54th winner of the afternoon from the utterly unheralded world No.47 Jelena Ostapenko, and the crown which so many forecast could only be Halep’s was wrenched away.
In these terrible moments, Halep did well. At the net she looked her opponent in the eye, even as Ostapenko’s face was written with the 20-foot neon of joy that only the victor feels, and embraced her. Then she busied herself at her chair, keeping her eyes down, before quietly leaving the court, needing privacy. Three minutes later she was back, and it didn’t take a degree in specialist observation to spot that she had been crying. Then she endured the unendurable 20 minutes of formalities and trophy presentation which all losing finalists must get through, as their dreams lie in tatters before them.
The sunlight reflected off the runners-up plate on to her face as she received the unwanted trophy. Handed the microphone to address the crowd, she said: “Jelena, enjoy it, be happy, because you are young like a kid.” It wasn’t hard to understand what she meant – that Ostapenko is barely equipped yet to understand the magnitude of what she has achieved, whereas Halep knows all too well what she has lost.
“I have been sick to my stomach with emotions,” she said, adding sadly: “Maybe I wasn’t ready to win it.”
But she was ready. Everyone believed it. Throughout the tournament, she played each match with ever-greater authority. Having come through that epic quarter-final against Svitolina, there could be no more doubt. Halep woke this morning in the knowledge that this was the most important day of her professional life. Her destiny was in her own hands. One more win would see her lift the Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen, and become the world No.1.
It didn’t happen.
“I have been sick to my stomach with emotions. Maybe I wasn’t ready to win it.”
"She was hitting very strong," said Halep an hour or so later, in her post-match press conference. "At some points I was like a spectator on court. She had only one game. Sometimes [her shots] were two metres out, sometimes they were in the court and I couldn't touch them. She deserved to win.
"It's a tough moment for me, but it will go away, I hope, with time. I was close, but again, I lost it. I cannot change anything, so I just have to look forward. I didn't say that I'm favorite before the match, because you never know with young players like this, playing very hard and hitting all the balls. This one hurts a lot maybe because I realise more what is happening. Hurts a lot, and I need time to just go away."
Think of these two finalists as drivers at the wheel of their wonderful talent. Halep’s skills are all about percentages and ingenious defences, her brilliance all about calculating how to wring the most from the vehicle beneath her. But she came up against a different kind of pilot, one who drove perpetually downhill in fifth gear, never touching the brakes, careering from hairpin bend to hairpin bend.
Understand this, and you can see why Halep had eight winners and 10 unforced errors in the entire match, while Ostapenko thundered 54 winners and exactly as many mistakes.
It seemed as if it must be the case that all Halep had to do was to wait for Ostapenko either to lurch off the road once and for all, or simply to run out of fuel. A set up and with points for 4-0, she must have thought the Latvian was at last disappearing out of sight in the rear-view mirror. But somehow Ostapenko got herself out of the roadside ditch and came hurtling past again – and this time she didn’t stop. Halep, everybody’s anointed champion-in-waiting, could do nothing to prevent her opponent taking the chequered flag.
“It’s a tough day,” Halep told her team during her on-court speech. “But let’s keep working and let’s believe.”
That’s the thing about elite achievers. They always believe. Everyone believed Halep would win this one. It made no difference. In the Roland-Garros final of 2017, destiny turned its back on Halep to embrace her opponent instead. And all the belief in the world couldn’t stop it happening.