Halep banishes the ghosts
World No.1 victorious against Sloane Stephens to claim maiden major title in third Roland-Garros final.
Sometimes history finds a way to repeat itself with the addition of an unforeseen quirk, to fashion the happiest of new chapters. So it was for Simona Halep in the final of Roland-Garros 2018.
One year ago on Court Philippe-Chatrier, she led Jelena Ostapenko by a set and a break, only for the Latvian to turn the match on its head and break her opponent’s heart.
Twelve months on, Halep found herself a set and a break down to Sloane Stephens, looking down the barrel of her fourth defeat in a Grand Slam final. She didn’t much like the view.
With the weight of global expectation on her shoulders, Halep forced her way back, past an opponent playing with the freedom of one who has already exceeded expectation by reaching the final. This time, the Romanian would not be defeated, pushing on through exhaustion all the way to victory. Halep won 3-6 6-4 6-1. The world No.1 is at last a Grand Slam champion.
"It was amazing and I felt your support," Halep told the crowd during an on-court interview.
"In the last game I felt I cannot breathe any more. So I just tried not to repeat the (outcome from) last year. So I did everything I could, it's amazing what is happening now. Honestly I cannot believe it. I was dreaming for this moment since I started to play tennis. I'm really happy that it's happened in Roland-Garros in Paris. My special city."
Every inch of the form book dictated that this must be Halep’s time. She led her career encounters against the American 5-2; she had won all four of their most recent encounters in straight sets, three of which were on Stephens’ preferred hard courts, and the last three sets between them before this match had yielded just three games for Stephens. Moreover, before this match the No.10 seed had not defeated any world No.1 in six previous attempts.
Yet in the first set here, every statistic turned to dust.
Early on Halep was edgy, and there was no mistaking she was under pressure. In the stands of Court Philippe-Chatrier, to the left of the Presidents’ Box as Halep looked, her coach Darren Cahill sat very still, eyes always on his charge, moving only when her gaze met his. After a mistake he would applaud to encourage her into the next point, at other times making a tiny reflection of Halep’s own motion as she gestured at herself to stay calm, putting both palms down flat.
Sometimes the electric line of unspoken communication between them was almost visible, as if the 15,000 spectators on Chatrier melted away, and the great court contained only Stephens, Halep and Cahill.
But in the first set, it made no difference. Halep’s boundless defence met a worthy adversary in Stephens. This was the story of the growler and prowler – Halep investing a deep cry of effort into every strike of the ball, Stephens stalking the baseline and waiting for the Romanian’s defence to bow before unleashing an elastic forehand. She did it to break for 3-1 in the first, and it happened again right at the start of the second. Stephens’ intensity was terrifying.
Chatrier echoed to deafening sound – one moment explosive cheers for Stephens’ bravura, the next great bellows of Halep’s first name crashing from the stands. But just as the spectators thought the No.1 seed was on the road to defeat, she began hacking out the path to victory.
She reeled off four games, and suddenly Stephens was feeling the pace. The American found a way to stonewall the advance, grabbing back a break to love to put the set back on serve. After all, Stephens had faced a worse crisis than this, coming back from match point down in the third round to see off Camila Giorgi in three dauntless sets. But from 4-4 in the second, she won only one more game.
It made no odds that she was at her most resourceful, returning everything, prowling as before, waiting again for Halep to waver before unleashing a winner. But this time there was no wavering. Up in the stands at 4-0 in the third, Cahill was out of his seat, eyes locked on his charge, fist clenched in front of him as Halep mirrored the celebration.
Three games later, the day belonged to Halep, and the title with it.
"It's always tough to play against her. She was very strong on court," Halep reflected. "When I was down a break in the second set I said OK, everything is gone, I just have to start to relax and to enjoy the match. And I came back."
At last, at long last, Simona Halep is a Grand Slam champion.
After falling three times in major finals, Simona Halep finally breaks through at her favourite Grand Slam event.
With every passing round, Simona Halep looked more and more like a champion in waiting.
The American was the champion of the first "Open" Roland-Garros tournament 50 years ago, in 1968.