Ac­cept­ing de­feat helped Halep cap­ture French Open

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY CHUCK CULPEPPER

paris — The rather tor­tured global odyssey of top-ranked Si­mona Halep fi­nally wound its way Satur­day to a patch of clay just be­hind a Roland Gar­ros base­line, where the small Ro­ma­nian with the big guts dropped her racket and stood amazed, hands on fore­head. By the time Sloane Stephens’s last ser­vice-re­turn bid had flut­tered right­ward and struck the net, Halep had freed her­self from gob­lins loi­ter­ing from three pre­vi­ous Grand Slam fi­nals that went both long and glum.

Be­yond even that, Halep’s 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 win in the French Open

women’s fi­nal against the blazing Amer­i­can, a match full of long ral­lies and long, long ral­lies, had forced Halep to stare at fresh gob­lins. As Stephens looked air­tight through a first-set win and a 2-0 lead in the sec­ond and as the day be­gan to look like a tow­er­ing re­in­force­ment of Stephens’s 2017 U.S. Open ti­tle, Halep came across a novel tac­tic.

She de­cided she had lost, that an­other chance had fiz­zled.

“I did, yes,” she said. “I felt that and I said, ‘It’s not go­ing to hap­pen again, but it’s okay. I just have to play.’ And then when I started to win games, I said that last year, I said that last year hap­pened to me, same thing; I was a set and a break up, and I lost the match. So I said there is a chance to come back and win it. So I be­lieved in that, and my game was more re­laxed.”

Old-fash­ioned pes­simism had struck again, mixed with the ma­tu­rity of ac­cept­ing a nonex­is­tent de­feat, even given the fear of the news-con­fer­ence ques­tions of which she would say, “Hon­estly, that was the tough­est thing.” Her shots be­gan to take on more height and depth, while Stephens’s replies be­gan to ex­hibit more fa­tigue and er­ror.

Within mo­ments, Halep had won 15 of 18 points. By the end, she had won 12 of the last 15 games. Near the end of that, she had felt un­able to breathe in some fi­nal mo­ments along­side the last, stirring ghosts from her losses in the 2014 French Open (to Maria Shara­pova, in three sets), in the 2017 French Open (to up­start Je­lena Ostapenko, in three sets and un­com­mon an­guish) and in the 2018 Aus­tralian Open (to Caro­line Woz­ni­acki, in three sets and the re­spect-win­ning de­tail of hav­ing to un­dergo treat­ment for de­hy­dra­tion after the match).

And by the end of that, when she re­minded her­self to go point by point be­cause the ruth­less ten­nis life had taught her that, she had re­duced Stephens’s ster­ling record in WTA Tour fi­nals to 6-1.

And then by the end of that, ob­servers around the world, none un­beaten in life, felt happy for her.

Those in­cluded the 22 mil­lion Ro­ma­ni­ans, hail­ing from a coun­try of Ilie Nas­tase and Na­dia Co­maneci and more, yet a coun­try where, at the mo­ment, all the big sports pres­sure heaps upon Halep. Those in­cluded the many Ro­ma­ni­ans who made Court Philippe Cha­trier feel like a Ro­ma­nian vil­lage, with their Ro­ma­nian flags and their chants of “Si­mona! Si­mona! Si­mona!”

Those in­cluded even Stephens, who has vaulted from No. 957 in early Au­gust, post-in­jury, to No. 4 this com­ing Mon­day and whose state­ments in­cluded, “She raised her game, raised her level,” and how “the bet­ter player won the match to­day,” as well as “no one else in the world I’d rather lose to,” and, “It’s a beau­ti­ful thing, very spe­cial.” They in­cluded Dar­ren Cahill, an Aus­tralian for­mer player and her coach, who saw “a magical mo­ment for her, and she did it the hard way, against a great op­po­nent.”

Watch­ing had been “tor­ture” at times, Cahill said. He saw Stephens and “that rhythm of mov­ing side to side, and she has that easy power and pace and re­di­rect­ion, Sloane at times can look un­beat­able on this stuff.” He saw Halep un­able to get any­thing past Stephens, leav­ing balls too short and re­quir­ing more depth.

Yet in an­other funny way, the dif­fi­culty of the points “prob­a­bly worked a lit­tle bit in [Halep’s] fa­vor,” Cahill said, “be­cause there was no easy way to win points.” There­fore, Cahill said: “She had to grind for ev­ery point, and I thought Sloane, you could just see, late in the sec­ond set, start­ing to get a lit­tle bit tired and mak­ing a few more er­rors than she did in the first set, and I think Si­mona re­al­ized that as well and was de­ter­mined to keep the ral­lies longer.” He saw her un­ques­tion­able stamina kick in.

“I was putting the ball higher and stopped miss­ing,” Halep said.

She ad­justed, piv­oted and then mar­veled by the time she turned up in her den of cor­dial hor­rors, the in­ter­view room, where the tro­phy sat in front of her. It seemed mirth and re­lief had swept across her 26-year-old face to leave be­hind a strik­ing hap­pi­ness and peace. Even as she stood al­ready at No. 1, every­thing had changed. That ex­hausted ques­tion about hav­ing a No. 1 player who hasn’t won a ma­jor had van­ished with the ghosts. “All fin­ished,” she said. “It’s my fa­vorite city, ac­tu­ally, ro­man­tic city,” she said of Paris, where she won the ju­nior ti­tle 10 years ago. She con­cluded that her fond­ness for Paris means, “So I’m re­ally happy that I didn’t win Mel­bourne, ac­tu­ally, and hap­pened here.” Ev­ery­one laughed. And she looked at the tro­phy sit­ting in front of her and said: “It’s heavy. It’s beau­ti­ful. And al­ways when I was see­ing the pic­tures with it, I dreamed to have it, to touch it. ”

Yet maybe the fore­most com­ment came from a woman stand­ing to her left against the wall, Vir­ginia Ruzici, Halep’s man­ager and the 1978 French Open cham­pion. “To me,” Ruzici had said, “it tells her she did it be­cause she’s big. She’s a big cham­pion. She is huge . . . . She is the fastest player on tour, and other than that she has all the shots right now.”

Imag­ine that. A player al­ways ad­mired and slighted for be­ing “5-foot-51/2,” as Cahill put it, turns out to be huge.

ALESSAN­DRA TARANTINO/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

After losses in three pre­vi­ous Grand Slam fi­nals, Si­mona Halep top­pled Sloane Stephens on Satur­day.

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