SI­MONA HALEP

Top-ranked player beats Stephens for French Open ti­tle

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - SPORTS+ -

(left) wins her first ma­jor ti­tle in her fourth try, de­feat­ing Sloane Stephens.

PARIS — Si­mona Halep kept telling ev­ery­body who would lis­ten: She was a dif­fer­ent player. She was stronger men­tally. She wanted so much to fi­nally win a Grand Slam ti­tle and was sure that, one day, she would.

Af­ter three losses in ma­jor fi­nals, maybe Halep was try­ing to con­vince her­self as much as any­one else she could do it. Ei­ther way, she was right.

Halep added Grand

Slam tro­phy No. 1 to her No. 1 rank­ing, com­ing back from a set and a break down to beat Sloane Stephens 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 Satur­day and win the French Open cham­pi­onship in a match made up of lengthy points and mo­men­tum swings.

“When I was down a break in the sec­ond set,” Halep told the crowd af­ter­ward, “I thought, ‘Ev­ery­thing is gone. I’m go­ing to start to re­lax and en­joy the match.’”

Halep, 26, be­gan the muggy after­noon hav­ing been to this stage be­fore but never able to dis­play her best. She lost in two pre­vi­ous ap­pear­ances in a fi­nal at Roland Gar­ros, against Maria Shara­pova in 2014 and Je­lena Ostapenko in 2017. Halep then fell to 0-3 with a tro­phy on the line at the Aus­tralian Open in Jan­uary, beaten by Caro­line Woz­ni­acki.

“I just tried not to re­peat the same as last year,” Halep said. “I did ev­ery­thing I could.”

And when Satur­day’s fourth chance ar­rived, 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. Both also are able to switch to of­fense in a snap.

Those traits lent them­selves to 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. For the most part, the shots were smacks, 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 and shook a fist. Not long af­ter that, Stephens broke to be­gin the sec­ond set, then held for a 2-0 lead. It ap­peared she was on her way.

Then, 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. The player who was up a set and 3-0 in the sec­ond in last year’s fi­nal at the clay­court Grand Slam tour­na­ment was now the one able to dis­miss a deficit.

While Stephens tem­po­rar­ily halted her slide, get­ting to 4-all, Halep used two con­sec­u­tive pow­er­ful fore­hand win­ners to hold in the next game. She broke to grab the sec­ond set when Stephens sailed a back­hand wide, all part of a seven-game run that made it 5-0 in third.

“Not the tro­phy I wanted,” Stephens said, look­ing at her run­nerup plate, “but it’s still beau­ti­ful.”

Halep be­came the first woman from Ro­ma­nia to claim a Grand Slam ti­tle since her cur­rent man­ager, Vir­ginia Ruzici, won the French Open 40 years ago.

While Halep made a ma­jor break­through, Rafael Nadal was pre­par­ing for Sun­day’s op­por­tun­tiy

to win a record-ex­tend­ing 11th cham­pi­onship at Roland Gar­ros.

He’ll face Do­minic Thiem, the only man to beat Nadal on clay last year.

Nadal is 85-2 for his French Open ca­reer, 110-2 in all best-of-fives on clay.

Nadal is 10-0 in fi­nals in Paris, win­ning the tro­phy ev­ery year from 2005 to 2008, then again ev­ery year from 2010 to 2014 and again in 2017.

This will be the 10th tour-level en­counter be­tween Nadal and Thiem.

All have been on clay. Nadal leads 6-3, in­clud­ing 2-0 in Paris, beat­ing Thiem in the first round in 2014 and the semi­fi­nals a year ago.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Si­mona Halep, who won the French Open ti­tle Satur­day, be­came the first Ro­ma­nian woman to claim a Grand Slam tour­na­ment ti­tle since her man­ager, Vir­ginia Ruzici, won the French Open 40 years ago.

Rafael Nadal (left) will faceDo­minic Thiem for theFrench Open men’s sin­gles ti­tle Sun­day. Nadal is seek­ing his 11th cham­pi­onship at Roland Gar­ros.

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