After three crushing disappointments in her first three Grand Slam finals, Simona Halep will have another chance to claim one of the sport’s great prizes when she takes on Sloane Stephens in the French Open final here on Saturday.
Four years after losing a three-hour marathon here against Maria Sharapova, 12 months after letting slip a big lead on the same court against Jelena Ostapenko and five months after losing a titanic struggle against Caroline Wozniacki in the Australian Open final, Halep will face Sloane Stephens in a contest that will bring together two of the game’s finest athletes.
In Thursday’s semi-finals Halep played her best match of the tournament so far to beat Garbine Muguruza 6-1, 6-4. The result guaranteed that she will remain on top of the world rankings in next week’s updated list. Stephens meanwhile beat her friend and fellow American, Madison Keys, 6-4, 6-4 in a repeat of her victory in the US Open final in September.
Halep, who has won the hearts of fans the world over with her all-action game, her smile and her honest verdicts on her most painful moments, insisted that she would stay “chilled” in the build-up to the final and would not be dwelling on her past losses, but that will not stop a barrage of media questions.
Asked what she had learned from her defeats in big finals, Halep smiled. “Can we change the subject?” she said. “Let's talk outside. The weather’s beautiful.”
Halep said that Saturday’s final was a big opportunity but added: “I lost three times [in Grand Slam finals] until now and no one died, so it will be OK. I think I will be more confident because I have a lot of experience. But in tennis, you never know, so I will stay chilled.”
Muguruza, the champion here in 2016, had been in excellent form going into the semi-final. The Wimbledon champion had not dropped a set in her first five matches and had swept Sharapova aside for the loss of only three games in the previous round.
In some of her previous matches Halep had taken time to find her form, but on this occasion she was on her game from the start. The Romanian went 5-0 up, dropped serve in the next game but broke for the third time in a row to take the first set.
Muguruza improved in the second set, broke in the fourth game and led 4-2, but Halep recovered to 4-4. The match was effectively decided in a marathon ninth game which lasted more than 10 minutes. Halep saved three break points before winning the game when Muguruza netted a return. The Spaniard promptly went 0-40 down in the next game and then lost the match with a missed backhand.
“I’m really happy that I could beat a player like Muguruza,” Halep said afterwards. “She's a great opponent, a great player, and it’s always tough against her. I think I played very well. It was my best match here. Every day I play better.”
Halep, who has now reached three of the last five Grand Slam finals, agreed that the long game at 4-4 in the second set had been crucial.
“I just didn't give up,” she said. “I think I made two double faults [in the game] so it was a bit tough. But I stayed calm, I stayed focused and I didn't give up, which is the most important thing in my game. After that I was very confident that I could finish the match.”
She added: “I knew that I had to be aggressive, like her. I knew that she would start the match with a lot of power. I was strong in my legs. I also pushed her back. I feel like I played so well opening the court. I just hit the ball. I didn't push at all. It was a good tactic.”
Stephens had won both her previous matches against Keys and once again beat her friend in straight sets. It was not as one-sided a contest as last year’s US Open final, when Keys won only three games, but Stephens always looked in control.
Although Keys’ clay-court game has improved appreciably this year, the world No 13 made too many mistakes. Keys is a big hitter who likes to go for her shots, but Stephens kept making her play the extra ball. While Stephens hit only nine winners to Keys’ 25, the unforced error count was crucial: Keys made 41, while Stephens, a model of consistent ball-striking, made just 11.