French Open 2018: Simona Halep overcomes fear of losing, buries ghosts of past to clinch first Grand Slam crown

Paris: As expected, Simona Halep wasn’t handed her first Grand Slam title on a silver platter – the Romanian had to withstand the near-perfect performance from US Open champion Sloane Stephens for almost an hour until she saw an opening and slowly started to dismantle the American in the style of a World No 1 for a 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory in the final.

 Romania’s Simona Halep celebrates after winning the final against Sloane Stephens. Reuters

Romania’s Simona Halep celebrates after winning the final against Sloane Stephens. Reuters

In the 48 hours leading up to the women’s singles French Open final, very few people in the Roland Garros media centre were will to make a call when it came to this year’s women’s singles finals.

Too many question marks were still circling above Halep, who had suffered a crushing defeat in the same place last year – too many big-occasion statements by Stephens to know that the American would be an incredibly tough opponent for the Romanian in the finals.

And sure enough, the 26 year-old-year old struggled coming up with the extra gear to surpass Stephens’ incredible defence and occasional injections of pace.

Right from the first few games, Halep was in trouble in her own service games while the American coasted through hers. The Romanian was flattening her shots out in a similar manner to the way she did in her semi-final clash but found not getting past a supremely moving and perfectly measured Stephens.

In the past, Halep had numerous big matches where she came out flat or where she had a hard time making the adjustments against an opponent when things we not going her way.

In Paris, Halep displayed the ability to analyse and reassess her game plan the best she has so far in her career. In her quarter-finals against Kerber, she applied too much pace at the beginning while playing poorly and realised that she had to be more patient.

“So I think the best thing that I have done these two weeks is that I stopped missing during the match”, Halep laughed in her press conference after the final.

But it was more than just not missing: Halep had started to use a vitally important pattern as the match progressed: high with topspin to the Stephens backhand and then go after the shorter responses.

Stephens’ groundstrokes are incredibly sound and the American played like a wall with intent during the first hour of the match but the only soft spot off the baseline is her backhand at shoulder height –it’s probably the most uncomfortable, a specific shot one can make the 25-year-old hit and in big moments, Halep started exploiting it: at 4-4, 30-30 in the second set as well as at 1-0 in the third set when she had breakpoint to go up to 2-0 – both times she succeeded.

As the match progressed, Halep began to understand that Stephens was comfortable soaking up the pace that Halep over-aggressively tried to implement in the rallies – the 26-year-old began to throw in higher balls and get more depth rather than sacrificing placement for pace.

“At the beginning, I started too strong. I started to hit the ball flat. I had nothing in those balls, and she was just playing very high. The ball was bouncing high. I couldn't make anything from there. And then I said that I have to calm down, just to try to open the court, try to put more balls in. So I was patient, putting the ball higher. And at one point I felt that she started to feel a little bit tired and to miss more”, Halep herself analysed the role-reversal that started to occur on the court.

Stephens’ spell-binding metronomic tennis at the beginning further inhibited Halep from conjuring up much magic but it probably wasn’t until the Romanian not only tactically but also mentally finally ‘let go’ of the fear of losing. The top seed had already started playing smarter at the end of the first set but it wasn’t until she found herself facing defeat once again a set and a break down that she loosened up enough to start executing better as well.

“I said, it's not going to happen again, but it's okay”, the eventual Roland Garros champion recalled.

“I just have to play. And then when I started to win games, I said that last year happened to me, the same thing, I was set and a break up and I lost the match. So I said there is a chance to come back and win it.”

In the second set, Halep started solving the puzzle and she found the necessary pieces, some of which she couldn’t see for Stephens had overshadowed them with her magnificent start. And as the match wore on and Halep’s picture became clearer, Stephens’ became more diffused.

Rarely ever is there no (almost) simultaneous cause and effect in tennis, and the fascinating women’s singles final in Paris on Saturday was no different – but at the end, the hard lessons Halep learned in the past twelve months culminated in a problem-solving victory that forced her to accept and overcome her fears. And it doesn’t hurt that it happened at her favourite tournament either.

“It's my favourite Grand Slam. I always said that if I'm going to win one, I want it to be here.”

In the end, it was perhaps Stephens who summarised Halep’s most recent career arc best. The gracious American had not only given Halep instructions on how to pose with her trophy (“Show it to the world!”) but for very good reasons, she empathised with the Romanian’s tough past twelve months.

“I think she's had a tough journey. I think winning here is very special for her and I'm glad she finally got her first slam. It's a beautiful thing, very special. No matter how hard the adversity that you go through, there is always light at the end of the tunnel, and I'm glad she finally got her light,” Sloane concluded.


Updated Date: Jun 11, 2018 10:11 AM

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