A set and a break up in a women’s singles Grand Slam final is a comfortable place to be.
It’s insurance, you just need to hold serve and play out the next set without unnecessary risk and defend. It takes extraordinary effort to overcome this deficit and lift the trophy.
Simona Halep knows this better than most, for she has been on both sides of this scenario in a span of 12 months on the same court.
In 2017, she was the favourite to lift her first Major title, as she lead a 20-year-old unseeded Jelena Ostapenko. But in a moment of mental breakdown that has so often been associated with her, she went on to lose the title, her second runner-up plate at Roland Garros after the 2014 loss to Maria Sharapova. She collected another at Australian Open this year and it seemed to be developing into a pattern of sorts as she lost the finals in Cincinnati, Beijing, and Rome as well in the last year, lifting just one title, at a relatively smaller tournament in Shenzhen.
At one point, the world no 1 didn’t even have a kit sponsor heading into the Australian Open, wearing an outfit she herself sourced in China.
But on Saturday, the tables and tide finally turned for the Romanian as she lifted her first Grand Slam title at the French Open. It was her fourth Major final and like the three before, went into the third set. But this time, it was the new, mentally strong Halep that fought back from a set and a break down to beat US Open champion Sloane Stephens 3-6, 6-4, 6-1. And become the first world WTA world No 1 to win her first Major as the top seed.
So often a clichéd phrase in sports, but full circle is an apt way to describe Halep’s career in the last one years as she smiled on the red dirt that had left her in helpless tears a year back. Ten years after she lifted the junior French Open as a 16-year-old, she had her first Major title.
A roller-coaster final
Stephens is a pro in finals with an unblemished 6-0 record before Saturday. She won her first Slam on the first attempt, as an unseeded player just 69 days after making her return following a 10-month surgery layoff. She went on a long, eight-match losing streak after becoming the US Open champion but fought back to lift the title in Miami.
It’s the kind of player she is, versatile, sharp, resilient. So when she wore down, broke the top seed in the first set and then in the first game of the second to take a 2-0 lead, everyone including Halep herself, thought this would be a straight sets encounter. The American was on a roll, defending well from the baseline and moving as good as anyone on the surface traditionally said to not favours Americans.
But even as she kept fighting with painfully visible effort, something clicked in Halep as the vociferous crowd kept chanting ‘SI-Mo-Na’. She, of all players, knew that it is possible to fight back from her position and attain glory. And that’s what she did in a manner that showed her mental grit.
At 1-2 in the second, her trick of moving side by side worked as a moonballed point and a double fault from Stephens gave her triple break points, after getting only one on the American’s serve before.
Then came the duel that ultimately decided the match.
The tenth seed broke back to love in the very next game and then went 30-0 up only for Halep to claw back but she could not get the break. This was a big moment, when Halep’s mental game could have gone either way. But unlike so many times before, this time the Darren Cahill-coached player came out on top.
At 4-4, Halep realised that she cannot afford anymore slip ups and bludgeoned her spin-laden forehands to hold her serve and with relentless baseline attack, got set points and converted it to enforce a decider.
Halep is supreme athlete and can grind for her points like few others. She will keep returning with her trademark grunt, and keep the ball in play. But on Saturday, she amped that up and in the long rallies, started sending that one extra ball in which forced errors from Stephens.
She then raced to a 5-0 lead in the decider with a commanding display of tennis – her creativity, aggression and experience guiding her forward , despite the grueling rallies. Consider this: The most games won in a row for Halep were 9, to Stephens’s 3. This is how she wrested the momentum once she edged ahead at 4-4.
Serving for the championship, she fired her first ace and it was only a matter of time before she clinched match point and threw her racquet down as she buried her face in her hands and savoured the moment. She had similarly buried her face in the towel after losing the intense Australian Open final to Wozniacki, but this time her emotions were there for the world to see.
She climbed on to the stands to greet her team, as the legendary tennis coach Cahill was in tears – his protégé had finally cleared the hurdle; not just the Major one but the mental one as well, which had once made him temporarilty call it splits.
But the ‘new Simo’ had answered her critics once and for all as she became a Grand Slam champion on fourth try. She had dropped her first set of the tournament to Alison Riske, she was staring at the barrel in the quarter-finals against Kerber, she was struggling to hit a winner throughout the first set, but she had fought through it all to be the last woman standing.
“In the last game I felt like I can’t breathe anymore. I did everything I could. It’s amazing what is happening now,” she gushed, thanking the supportive French crowd.
At the presentation ceremony, a smiling Stephens showed her how to pose for photographers with the trophy and an excited Halep then held it aloft. “There is no one I’d rather lose than the world No 1,” said the runner-up before, and that is a good example of the place Halep has among her peers. Her struggle to break through and her honest work ethic made everyone, including the losing finalist, celebrate the win.
Now that she is no more a ‘Slamless’ world No 1, it should be only a matter of time before this new version of Simona Halep goes on to win more finals.