Halep ends the heartbreak
SIMONA Halep’s third French Open final looked like ending in familiar heartache, but the Romanian eventually wore down Sloane Stephens for a 3-6 6-4 6-1 victory to claim her long-awaited first grand slam title.
US Open champion Stephens outfought Halep to take the opening set and was a break up in the second but the world No 1 wound her way back into contention before running away with the deciding set.
When Stephens netted a forehand return on Halep’s first match point, the Romanian could finally replace the bitter memories of her first three grand slam finals.
She climbed into the stands to embrace Australian coach Darren Cahill, who was there last year when Halep blew a commanding lead against Jelena Ostapenko in the final and when she lost to Caroline Wozniacki in this year’s Australian Open final.
“In the last game I couldn’t breathe, I just didn’t want to repeat what happened the other years,” Halep said on court.
Both players boasted rocksolid defence and superb court coverage but it was Stephens who grabbed the initial advantage, eventually tying up the first set after some seemingly endless rallies.
It looked bleak for Halep when she trailed 2-0 in the second set but the effects of Stephens’ efforts suddenly caught up with her as the American began to wilt and Halep grabbed the momentum with nine consecutive points on the way to a 4-2 lead.
When Stephens dragged it back to 4-4, it seemed Halep’s revival might be over. But a crunching Halep backhand at 30-30 in the ninth game proved too much for
Stephens as Halep crucially held. And in the next game Stephens put a weary backhand wide to lose the set.
Halep turned the screws in the decider to grab a break and then another to lead 4-0.
Another explosion of noise greeted a sensational point in which Halep chased a drop shot down and was then equal to Stephens’ attempted lob with a backhand smash.
Serving at 5-1, an ace steadied Halep’s nerves before she claimed her first grand slam at the 32nd attempt.
“Congratulations to Simona. There is no one else I’d rather lose to than the No 1 in the world,” a gracious Stephens, who will rise to four in the rankings, said.
The only man to get the better of Rafael Nadal on clay this year was Dominic Thiem.
And the only man to beat Nadal on clay last year was Thiem.
So if anyone could have headed into this morning’s French Open final with even the slightest reason to think there was a chance of preventing Nadal from winning a record-extending 11th championship at Roland Garros, it was his opponent. Yes, that’s right: Thiem.
“For sure,” said Thiem’s coach, Gunter Bresnik, “this gives you a little hope.”
Not any sort of certainty, of course. Not even necessarily a tonne of belief. But, sure, a little hope.
Prior to this morning’s match, Nadal was 85-2 for his French Open career, 110-2 in all best-of-fives on clay.
The 32-year-old Spaniard was 10-0 in finals in Paris, winning the trophy every year from 2005-08, then again every year from 2010-14, then again in 2017.
“He’s the best competitor in (any) sport, in my opinion, of all time. It doesn’t matter what sport. The way he competes is unbelievable. He’s physically strong, and you know he’s not going to give up — at any score. He’s not going to give you a free point if he’s up 5-love or down love-5,” Bresnik said.
“This is why the guy was dominating clay-court tennis over the last 14 years like nobody else before. And nobody ever will.”