Roland Garros: Sharapova d. Halep

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Stretched to the limit in a three-hour and two-minute stress test, Maria Sharapova played with bold aggression and buzz-kill brilliance to rule Roland Garros again.

In a glorious struggle of pulsating shot-making, scrappy defense, and sudden momentum shifts, Sharapova stared down a spirited challenge from Simona Halep, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4, to capture her second French Open title in the last three years.

Contesting her third straight Roland Garros final, Sharapova showed grit, guts, and staying power in winning her 20th consecutive three-setter on clay—and fourth in a row—in the first French Open title match to go the distance since Jennifer Capriati edged Kim Clijsters in 2001.

The match crackled with electric exchanges, bold strikes, nervous patches (a combined 33 break points), gamesmanship, dangling net-cords, sing-song chants from the crowd, and rousing comebacks by both women. Showing no trace of nerves at the start, maiden major finalist Halep stood toe-to-toe with Sharapova, breaking to open and sliding a forehand down the line to back it up with a hold.

Creeping closer toward the baseline and blasting drives even closer to the sidelines, Sharapova slashed her ninth forehand winner for a fourth break point, converting for 2-all. Halep attacked behind a forehand and was in position at net when Sharapova surprised her flicking a forehand lob winner, eventually withstanding a demanding 10-minute test to hold for 3-2.

That lob haunted Halep. Punishing everything within reach, Sharapova rolled to her fifth straight game for a 5-2 advantage that felt nearly fatal given Sharapova's 40-1 record at Roland Garros when winning the first set. The 5'6" Halep often opened the court to stretch her 6'2"opponent. But the seventh seed used her wider wing spin and down-the-line daggers in rally-shredding response. Sharapova hit twice as many winners (18 to 9) winning six of the last eight games seizing an entertaining 57-minute opener.

The physicality of the rallies and the demoralizing result seemed to wear on Halep, who lost a set for the first time in the tournament. Commanding the center of the court, Sharapova held at love to open second set, and when Halep double faulted to donate the break it was 2-0. But Halep wasn't done. 

Eager to see the first three-set final in 13 years, the crowd erupted in chants of "See-Mona! See-Mona!" and Halep answered the call holding at 15 for 2-all. Fans erupted in the wave as Halep stepped up to serve at 3-4, and she withstood a barrage of backhands and two break points to level the set. The most dazzling exchange of the day saw a scrambling Halep slide into a backhand stab to extend the point, swirling in a 360 recovery spin, then curling a forehand to win it, earning a standing ovation for her efforts.

The fourth-seeded Romanian went on to secure a break for 5-4, and she served for the set twice—but Sharapova blasted her way into a tiebreaker after two hours of play. It would not be the last momentum shift of the day, or even the set.

Pressure was glaring, with five mini-breaks in the first six points before Halep netted a forehand as Sharapova took a 5-3 lead. But Halep has a high tennis I.Q. and picked the right time to play her hand in the breaker. Sharapova, a very deliberate player whose pre-point ritual includes turning her back to the court, had held up the quick-serving Romanian a few times in the match. With Sharapova serving at 5-3 in the breaker, Halep held up her hand, swiped clay off the baseline with her toe and tapped her racquet against her shoes, disrupting the Russian's serve rhythm before a second serve.

Sharapova, whose forehand had been the key stroke in the opening set, missed three forehands in a row to give Halep a set point. She obliged, hitting an angled an inside-out return to take it.

A grim Sharapova, who had been two points from the title moments earlier, embarked on a seven-minute bathroom break to clear her head and give Halep time to think. She returned recharged, breaking in the opening game of the decider, but Halep broke right back and snapped a run of six straight breaks by lashing a forehand winner down the line to hold for 2-1. Halep had two break points for a 3-1 lead, but Sharapova refused to yield, pounding out a hard-fought hold with a double fist pump and piercing scream for 2-all.

It was 4-all after Sharapova hit her 12th double fault to exchange breaks. If you think that lapse would rattle Sharapova, you haven't spent much time watching her work in Paris. The bigger the point, the bolder the strike. Sharapova finished with more than twice as many winners (46 to 20) and teed off on timely returns, winning 70 percent of the points played on the Romanian's second serve. Sharapova buzzed the baseline to open the ninth game then belted three more winning drives, breaking back for 5-4 as coach Sven Groeneveld leaped from his seat, exhorting his charge to finish.

Zapping a forehand to close a duel at love, Sharapova dropped to her knees. A disconsolate Halep sat with splotches of copper-colored clay dotting her shoulders and a green towel shrouding her head; she should hold her head high. The strong-willed Russian embraced every challenge en route to the title and could have kissed the clay as she bowed her head while kneeling on court to absorb it all. It was about the only time Sharapova really looked down all day.

Earning her 50th career French Open win and raising her record to 54-4 in her last 58 clay-court matches, the former "cow on ice" can lay claim to the current queen of clay crown.

"This is the toughest Grand Slam final I've ever played," Sharapova said. "All respect to Simona. I thought she played an unbelievable match today...This tournament means so much to me."

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