Halep wins 1st Grand Slam ti­tle

Connecticut Post (Sunday) - - Sports -

PARIS — Maybe all of those losses in Grand Slam fi­nals helped Si­mona Halep ac­tu­ally win one.

She’d gone 0- 3 in matches with a ma­jor tro­phy on the line be­fore fac­ing Sloane Stephens for the French Open ti­tle Satur­day, so there was plenty to re­mem­ber: what it felt like to give a lead away, to make a key mis­take, to walk away with re­grets.

“All the ex­pe­ri­ence from those three fi­nals that I lost … was a pos­i­tive thing,” Halep said, “and gave me a lit­tle bit more power to be­lieve.”

Halep added Grand Slam tro­phy No. 1 to her No. 1 rank­ing, com­ing back from a set and a break down to beat Stephens 3- 6, 6- 4, 6- 1 and win the cham­pi­onship at Roland Gar­ros in a match made up of long points and key mo­men­tum swings.

“That’s the most im­por­tant thing — that I stay there fo­cused,” said Halep, the first Ro­ma­nian to col­lect a ma­jor ti­tle since her man­ager, Vir­ginia Ruzici, at the 1978 French Open. “I be­lieved. And I never gave up.”

The 26- year- old Halep was de­scrib­ing this par­tic­u­lar match. She could have been speak­ing about her ca­reer.

Halep lost two pre­vi­ous fi­nals at Roland Gar­ros — against Maria Shara­pova in 2014, then Je­lena Ostapenko in 2017 de­spite lead­ing by a set and 3- 0 in the sec­ond. Her third run­ner- up fin­ish came against Caro­line Woz­ni­acki at the Aus­tralian Open in Jan­uary.

“Been kicked in the stom­ach a cou­ple of times when she’s had chances,” said Halep’s coach, Dar­ren Cahill. “They say the des­ti­na­tion is more beau­ti­ful if there’s a bit of a bumpy road and you even­tu­ally get there. And that’s what hap­pened to her to­day.”

On a muggy af­ter­noon, Halep be­gan slowly, un­able to solve Stephens, the 10thseeded Amer­i­can who won her first Grand Slam ti­tle at last year’s U. S. Open. Both women are adept at de­fense, fig­ur­ing out ways — via speed, strength, skill and instinct — to get nearly ev­ery ball back over the net. They’re also both able to switch to of­fense in a snap.

Those traits lent them­selves to en­gag­ing ex­changes of 10 strokes, 20 strokes or more, sometimes in­ter­rupted by spec­ta­tors who would gasp or be­gin to clap, think­ing that a point was over when it still was not.

The play­ers were not trading loop­ing shots, mind you, meant merely to keep the ball be­tween the lines. For the most part, they were vi­o­lent smacks at the ball, de­liv­ered with the in­ten­tion of end­ing a point. It of­ten seemed ef­fort­less for Stephens, who broke for a 3- 1 edge when Halep put a fore­hand in the net.

When Halep ended a 14- stroke point by push­ing a back­hand wide, Stephens owned the first set. She wheeled to­ward her box, which in­cluded U. S. na­tional soccer team player Jozy Alti­dore, and shook a fist. Not much af­ter that, Stephens broke to be­gin the sec­ond set, then held for a 2- 0 lead. It ap­peared she was on her way to im­prov­ing to 7- 0 in tour­na­ment fi­nals.

And then, sud­denly, ev­ery­thing changed. Stephens started miss­ing. A dou­ble- fault here. A fore­hand into the net there. A back­hand wide. An­other long. Halep took 15 of 18 points and four games in a row.

Both Halep and Cahill thought Stephens looked a lit­tle gassed.

Christophe Si­mon / Getty Im­ages

Si­mona Halep plays a back­hand re­turn dur­ing the French Open fi­nal on Satur­day.

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