Stephens dissects Keys to reach final
World No.1 overcomes 2016 champion in straight sets to reach second straight final in Paris.
Simona Halep soaked up everything Garbine Muguruza could throw at her and launched her counter-attacks with such verve and venom on Thursday that she simply would not be denied a third visit to the Roland-Garros women’s final with what she recognised as one of her greatest performances.
More than that, this magnificent 6-1 6-4 semi-final victory for the Romanian over an ex-champion who’s been in rampant form really did feel like the day that she started to believe in herself as the world’s best player. “It was really important for my mind,” as she told the Court Philippe-Chatrier crowd afterwards.
Not as important for her mind as finally winning her fourth Grand Slam final, though.
On Saturday, Halep will face Sloane Stephens and if she can play like today, taking the racquet out of a powerful opponent’s hands with a game of controlled aggression and real attacking belief, she can at last get rid of the tag of being in that argument for the title of best woman player never to win a Slam.
Naturally, everyone wanted Simona to dissect those three previous final losses and talk about it being fourth time lucky but she just disarmed her questioners delightfully with a smiling “Can we change the subject? Let's talk outside. It's beautiful weather!”
Her mood was irrepressible. Reckoning this was the second most satisfying win of her career after her recent Rome semi-final comeback triumph against Maria Sharapova, she looked forward to Saturday with admirable good cheer. In public, at any rate. “It’s a big opportunity, it's a big chance, but you never know. So I lost three times until now and no-one died, so it will be okay!
“But I will be, I think, more confident, because I have a lot of experience. But in tennis, you never know, so I will stay chill.”
Halep’s world No.1 ranking was the other prize on offer on a glorious afternoon with the winner guaranteed the top spot at the end of the tournament and, this time, the little Romanian seemed determined from the opening point to ensure her second reign, now into its fourth month, is going to be a much more permanent one.
After some wretched starts to her matches in the last fortnight, Halep was out of the blocks like a startled greyhound. What was the secret this time? “I will keep it for the final and after I will tell you,” she said with a grin.
The 2016 champion Muguruza had looked ominously powerful and focused during a superb campaign en route to this stage, not dropping a single set and crushing three previous Grand Slam winners. She had also hammered Halep for the loss of just one game in their last meeting in the Cincinnati final last year.
Yet the world No.1 took the fight to her straight away with a relish that clearly shocked Muguruza. “It is a very tough day, because it's one of those matches where you train so hard to achieve a Grand Slam final but I think she played very well and deserved it. She just played better and better,” conceded the Spaniard.
Muguruza, used to controlling rallies here, seemed taken aback as the Romanian was the one to dictate, forcing the Spaniard back on to her toes, never allowing her any time or rhythm. It felt, she reckoned, like being struck by lightning, Halep was that good.
The constant pressure, particularly testing Muguruza’s previously deadly forehands and breaking that stroke down, made her look more than a little out of sorts. She had problems with her ball toss into the sun, started spraying strokes long and wide and only hit two clean winners in the first set which Halep raced to in 36 minutes after reeling off the first five games.
Naturally, it couldn’t be that easy. Muguruza offered some dazzling fare at the beginning of the second, with one fine low backhand volley and a lovely lob that beat the Romanian all hands up a particular delight as she took a 3-1 lead.
For a moment, the ghosts of last year’s final against Jelena Ostapenko seemed to be materialising again as Halep’s control of the match disappeared briefly along with her assertive game yet the Romanian again wrested the initiative as the match’s quality grew ever more exceptional, fighting back to level from 4-2 down and then holding serve in a dramatic marathon, seven-deuce ninth game.
“I think it was the most important game of the match,” she said, after saving three break points and surviving two double faults. “It was a bit tough but, there, I just didn't give up.”
She could feel the crowd willing her on, too. Was she aware of how tennis fans from around the world were now rooting for her? “Okay, let's make a deal. I will play for the fans from all over the world, because I know that many are hoping me to win this Grand Slam finally,” Halep smiled.
“I will put everything I have Saturday on the court. I will think that I will make many people happy. So maybe I will have enough power to win it.”