A world No 1 with no Grand Slam titles and a tenth seed who won a Major on her first attempt last yar set up an intriguing clash for the French Open women’s singles trophy. Simona Halep is back in the final after losing two Major finals in the span of eight months, Sloane Stephens is there as a reigning US Open champ a year after a surgery that pushed her down to world No 957.
But even as they enjoyed contrasting wins over Garbine Muguruza and Madison Keys respectively on Thursday, there was one common thread – incredible self-belief backing assertive tennis.
All four semi-finalists at Roland Garros are solid tennis players and have each notched multiple impressive wins on the red clay across the last 10 days. But when the clutch moment arrived, what set the last two women standing apart was the mix of physical adapting and mental toughness.
While both semi-finals were straight set wins, there was very little similarity in how they crossed the penultimate hurdle.
Halep’s 6-1, 6-4 win in 92 minutes was 60% attack and 40% strong, effective defence against the powerful Spaniard. On the other hand, Stephens’s 6-4, 6-4 win in 75 minutes was about knowing how to ensure her winners landed right while exploiting her fellow American and good friend’s errors.
If the Romanian showed true grit in the second set to not give more than a quarter, the US Open champ was all about staying calm to capture the crunch points.
Halep on the hunt
The top seed has had her fair share of upheavals on the clay of Roland Garros. From her two runner-up trophies – the last coming to the then unseeded Jelena Ostapenko – to having her first two matches on consecutive days this year and then the intense quarter-final a day before. But she has taken it all in her stride.
On Thursday, she played like a true World No 1, breaking the 2016 champion in the very first game and not taking her foot off the pedal till she was 5-0 up. She had a momentary lapse in concentration while serving for the set, with mounting errors including a double fault, to be broken. But that was the only blemish on an otherwise impressive set.
She was serving strong with superb first serve and when Muguruza sent down her powerful groundstrokes, she absorbed the pace at baseline to return in a good position as well. But what was particularly impressive was how Halep was responding to the kind of balls she kept missing in the quarterfinal match against Angelique Kerber. It showed that the top seed had done her homework right.
She was broken early in the second set as Muguruza regrouped and took a 2-1 lead. Many times in the past, such moments have derailed Halep’s momentum. But on Thursday, she began defending her fort and despite the creeping errors and break opportunities kept Muguruza at bay till she broke back at 4-4.
But the most impressive of them all was the ninth game which was a titanic duel in the largely lopsided match. Studded with a callous double fault and cracking winners, seven deuces and three break points, several shoddy errors and some incredible cross-court hitting from both, this was the game of the match. The gritty hold gave Halep all the confidence she needed as she secured triple match points in the next and booked her place in her third overall and second straight final at Roland Garros.
Later in the day, Stephens took a lot more straightforward path to the final as she dominated her opponent much like she had in the finals of the US Open. Aided by an under confident-looking Keys’s 41 unforced errors, Stephens rode the wave adapting her game to what was the need of the hour as she has done in her previous crunch games.
In the first set, Keys – who was yet to drop a set in Paris – had 2 break point chances but could not convert while Stephens needed just one to go on top as she sent down a forehand winner to break at 2-1. Since then, the Lindsay Davenport-coached Keys struggled to gain control or unsettle her opponent.
The only blip for Stephens came while serving for the match and Keys converted the only break point she earned and then consolidated to go 4-5. This could have turned the match around, but as was the case with most of the match, Keys gave away free points with basic errors to go down. It was unlike the Keys we had seen this French Open, but when the moment came, she failed to pounce on it, something her opponent has done throughout the tournament.
This might not have been the toughest moment for the American, but the easy-going tenth seed has come through with her mix of fast-paced, court-covering tennis to finish on top of the loaded bottom-half of the draw. Consider this: she came back to beat Camila Giorgi after the Italian served for the match twice. Since then, she has lost just six games against Anett Kontaveit, who stunned Petra Kvitova, and Caroline Wozniacki conqueror Daria Kasatkina.
Her final test will be against the current alpha of women’s tennis, who desperately wants what Stephens already has – a Grand Slam trophy. And if the semi-final was any indicator, it will be a dogged, no-punches-spared fight to the finish.