After the final point in her win over Karolina Pliskova in the semi-finals, Simona Halep turned to her player’s box, clenched her fist, looked up to the sky and then calmly walked over to the net to shake hands with her opponent. There was no wild celebration, no tears, and no loud exclamation of joy – only a muted acknowledgement of her victory.
Afterwards, Halep would tell reporters at her post match conference: “I’m not finished”.
The Romanian knows her job isn’t done yet, she is still one win away from her ultimate goal – the Suzanne Lenglen Cup, and with it the World No 1 ranking.
The commentators before the match said “Halep has the look of someone who desperately wants to win.” The 25-year-old has approached these two weeks as a woman on a mission, and with a single-minded pursuit of the title.
Halep knew there was no Maria Sharapova to stop her, like the way the Russian did in the 2014 Roland Garros final, over three tight sets. Halep knew there was no Serena Williams to knock her out, as the American did in the quarters of US Open 2016. Halep knew she was the heavy favourite to win the title this year, just as she knew this was probably her best chance of winning a Grand Slam.
However, just three weeks before, Halep didn’t even know if she could play this tournament. After her ankle twist in the Rome final against Elina Svitolina, she was informed by doctors that she had torn her ligament and they gave her 50-50 shot at playing.
Halep was devastated but instead of resigning to her fate, she worked hard to get fit for her favourite Major.
“I refused to accept that I cannot play, so I think I recovered faster mentally because of the positive thinking, and I really wanted to be here. So didn't matter what the scan showed," Halep said after her semi-final win.
In her first practice on the Paris claycourts before the start of the tournament, Halep had barely moved while hitting balls. Halep, playing with her ankle heavily taped up, has improved by every round. And it was her excellent movement against Pliskova that helped her outdo her big-serving opponent.
The 5’6 player relies on her superior defensive skills, and can quickly switch from chasing balls to bashing them for winners. It is her quickfire pace and speed on the court that allows her to tirelessly run from corner to corner while defending deep groundstrokes that baseliners send her way.
Halep is also one of the most athletic women on the tour. Over the last couple of years, she has worked tremendously on her fitness and stamina. She may not pound the ball with brute force but she is a skilful retriever who can easily turn a point in her favour with her topspin forehand. The longer a point lasts, the more likely it is that Halep will win it with her counter-punching.
In the final against feisty Jelena Ostapenko, Halep will have to face a barrage of powerful shots being hurled at her. The young 20-year-old Latvian is an aggressive player who attacks every ball that comes her way. Ostapenko has hit 245 winners in just six matches on her way to the final. Halep, in comparison, has hit only 118.
However, Ostapenko’s high-risk all-or-nothing style of play could actually work in Halep’s favour. While her opponent racks up a high amount of winners every match, she also commits just as many errors. The unseeded finalist has hit 217 unforced errors in her run till the last-two while Halep has hit a conservative 116.
In the final, the Romanian could patiently wear her opponent out, wait patiently for her chance and then sneak in towards the net to win easy points. Halep will make Ostapenko play “one ball more” in every rally, and will be prepared to handle the pressure of her ball-bashing competitor.
Halep has already shown a remarkable improvement in her attitude these two weeks, and her new positive approach helped her escape in the quarter-final round against Svitolina. Down 1-5 in the second set, Halep started playing freely, and didn’t even realise that she had saved a match point in her incredible comeback victory.
Halep is riding a wave of confidence into the final on the back of a successful claycourt season – semi-finals at Stuttgart, final at Rome and the title at Madrid. After notching only six wins in the first half of the season, her coach Darren Cahill took the drastic step of taking a hiatus from her team. Her negative attitude and emotional outburst in the loss to Johanna Konta in Miami – where she failed to convert two match points – forced Cahill to step away for a while.
This move prompted Halep to work on her mentality and confidence during matches, and her efforts have paid off. With Cahill back in her corner, she has been playing with a lot of self-belief and has managed to stay balanced emotionally even under immense pressure. She even wears a thin, red bracelet as a reminder to stay composed on court.
“The break (with Cahill) was definitely very good. It woke me up a little bit and made me realise that I have to change something to be in this position. After that I’ve won so many matches on the clay,” Halep explained.
It is this new attitude that could ultimately prove to be the third seed’s trump card against Ostapenko’s “hyper active aggression” - a term coined by the 20-year-old’s coach Anabel Medina. Halep believes she has the right mentality to win and has her eyes set on the prize.
Nine years after she won the girls’ singles title at Roland Garros, Halep will attempt to replicate the feat in the women’s final on Saturday. She has always had the talent and skills to win a Grand Slam on her beloved clay, now armed with a new attitude, she has the mental strength to finally make her dream a reality.
Updated Date: Jun 10, 2017 12:58 PM