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Simona Halep defeated Sloane Stephens to claim her maiden Grand Slam title at the French Open

Hannah Wilks in WTA Tour 9 Jun 2018
  • Simona Halep is the champion at the 2018 French Open
  • Halep defeated Sloane Stephens 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 in the Roland Garros final to claim her maiden Grand Slam title
Simona Halep holds the French Open trophy (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Simona Halep exorcises the ghosts of previous defeats to win her first Grand Slam title at the 2018 French Open. 

In a dramatic reversal of last year’s Roland Garros final, which saw Halep lose to Jelena Ostapenko after leading by a set and a break, Halep came back from 3-6, 0-2 down to turn the tables on Sloane Stephens and claim the French Open title with a 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory.

Halep is the first Romanian woman to win at Roland Garros since Virginia Ruzici – now her manager – in 1978.

The world no. 1 came into the final with a 5-2 record against Stephens, had lost all three Grand Slam finals she had previously contested – two at the French Open and one at the Australian Open in January 2018, when she led by a break in the deciding set before succumbing to Caroline Wozniacki. Stephens, by contrast, had a flawless 6-0 record in finals and won her only previous Grand Slam title match in one-sided fashion to claim the 2017 US Open. 

Combine that with the superlative defensive gifts of both women and the stage was set for a mesmerizing final. It did not disappoint.

Much of the focus in the pre-match build-up was on Halep’s nerves and her state of mind going into her third French Open final, but although the Romanian had twice got off to slow starts on her way to the final against Alison Riske in the first round and Angelique Kerber in the quarterfinals, she started brightly – it was simply that Stephens exploded on to court like a supernova. 

There is an elegant, effortless quality to the American’s game when she is playing, and in particular, moving well which can create the illusion that she is a dimensional plane or two above her opponents, and that’s very much how the first set unfolded. Halep clearly came on to the court with the aim of making the match a physical contest, for one thing, and with the tactic in mind of pummeling Stephens’s backhand, the more error-prone wing, for errors to allow her to get on top of the point. It swiftly became clear, though, that the Stephens backhand was more than on song – and that the US Open champion was quite happy to slug it out in long rallies that drew gasps and shrieks from the Chatrier crowd long before they were finished, usually in Stephens’s favour. A cross-court backhand that thrummed past Halep saw the American break to lead 3-1 and although Halep kept the deficit to just one break, she was quickly reduced to shaking her head and shrugging as Stephens continued to soar, soaking up all the pressure that Halep could bring to bear on her while biding her time before unleashing her own seemingly effortless power to sting the Romanian with winners off both wings.

Halep had an opportunity to break back as Stephens served for the first set, after the Romanian for the first time deployed a tactic which she would find more and more effective as the match went on – racing into the net after injecting pace to the Stephens backhand to get the American to slice the ball back defensively – but a cluster of backhand errors from the Romanian saw Stephens take a 6-3 lead.

The sheer untouchable magnificence of Stephens’s performance spilled over into the early stages of the second set as she broke Halep’s serve to open, setting up a fourth break point with a lightning charge into the net to set up a delicate drop volley before giving Halep more than she could handle on a defensive lob which the Romanian smashed wide. Stephens promptly consolidated and Halep faced a huge test at 3-6, 0-2 – would she descend into a downwards spiral of negativity, as she had done so many times while trailing to an inspired opponent?

She would not. Halep’s hold of serve to break the run of games against her for 1-2 wasn’t the most thrilling game of the match and won’t be much talked about, but it was a quiet, emphatic statement of the difference in the Romanian’s mental approach to this final – a statement which would become a shout by the end of the match. 

Halep went on the attack in the following game, committing to the tactic of racing into the net once she saw Stephens take the left hand off her racquet for the backhand defensive slice, and not only broke back for 2-2, but reeled off three straight games to lead 4-2 as Stephens’s level suddenly dropped sharply, the American presumably feeling some physical and mental fatigue after an hour of brilliance. From that point onwards, the match would feel more like a straight fight between two players on something like the same level.

That didn’t mean it would be straightforward. Serving at 4-2, Halep turned in an abysmal game to be promptly broken back – another opportunity for the Romanian to decide that it just wasn’t her day. But once again, she regrouped. Serving at 4-4, Halep found herself at 30-30 after Stephens fired a couple of sumptuous winners, just two points away from surrendering serve and finding her opponent serving for the match. With her heart presumably in her mouth, Halep took her destiny in both hands and attacked the net behind an approach to the Stephens backhand, then went for her shots to play a dominant rally which ran the American side-to-side. She controlled her own fate on both points – and won them to lead 5-4. For the first time, the Stephens backhand looked really vulnerable and it leaked errors to see Halep break and level the match 3-6, 6-4.

Halep started the third set with the wind in her sails while Stephens looked increasingly in need of a second one, although she would say after the match that she wasn’t tired so much as struggling to solve the tactical puzzle the Romanian presented her with. Holding from 0-30 to lead 1-0, Halep immediately broke as she continued to batter and probe the Stephens backhand – then was once again the more aggressive player once Stephens pushed to 30-30 on the top seed’s serve at 2-0. Halep came out on top of a rally that had the Philippe Chatrier crowd on their feet for deuce as Stephens served at 0-3, then won a long and marvelously testing all-court point that had both women chasing down drop shots and crafting desperate angles before Halep prevailed. 

At 4-0, it was all over bar the shouting, but Stephens wasn’t going to go down easy – she held from 0-30 to get on the board and force Halep to try to serve out the win at 5-1 just as the match clock ticked over to two hours. It was one more huge test for Halep – and one more that she would ace. Quite literally – the Romanian found her first and only ace of the match down the T for 30-15, then after Stephens hit back with a forehand winner for 30-30, commanded the centre of the court, ran the American from side to side to get the high ball and as everyone on Chatrier held their breath, landed the smash for championship point. Stephens, still winded, couldn’t make the return and Halep closed out a glorious, redemptive win to claim the French Open title.

Halep said afterwards that she couldn’t believe it, but the words felt slightly rote, because even through the emotion of victory, there was a serenity about the Romanian as she embraced her opponent, her team, her friends, her family. And the moment when Halep lifted the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen – after some encouragement from Stephens, miming to the woman who’d just joined her in the Grand Slam champions club to lift the trophy high – didn’t seem like a watershed but just a ratification of what had happened on the court, as if by not losing, not giving up, not being overwhelmed by the moment even while she was being outplayed, Halep had already won.

‘Congratulations on your first Slam,’ Stephens, a gracious loser, said on the dais during the trophy presentation. ‘It looks great on you.’

It did.

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Simona Halep defeated Sloane Stephens to claim her maiden Grand Slam title at the French Open

World no. 1 Simona Halep trailed by a set and a break but came back magnificently to win the 2018 Roland Garros title, defeating US Open champion Sloane Stephens 3-6, 6-4, 6-1

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