PARIS—Tennis.com writers Steve Tignor and Joel Drucker were at Roland Garros for Saturday’s fiercely fought women’s final between Simona Halep and Sloane Stephens. Here they discuss the match, how and why it turned around, and the emotions it brought out in the end.
My belief is that only the most devout Sloane Stephens fan wanted to see Simona Halep lose a fourth straight Grand Slam singles final and become something akin to the Buffalo Bills of tennis. But besides that vexing prospect, I also think Halep is likable because of her ravenous devotion to tennis—in practice, in off-court training, even in her tortured relationship to the demons within herself that she has fought so often and attempted to understand, and maybe even fix. Halep is all in—and that is why it’s so often been hard to witness her anguish.
So it was good to see hard work rewarded today. But while we might look back and ponder the 6-1 score of the final set as an easy time of it, there’s rarely anything easy about watching Halep try to close out a match.
Early on, Halep was searching for answers all over the court. Meanwhile, Stephens was dictating brilliantly. Once Stephens went up a set and 2-0, it seemed like Halep was slated once again to lose. Halep was a yo-yo, while Stephens was akin to Muhammad Ali: float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
Halep’s case also wasn’t being helped by her utter lack of faith in her net game. Repeatedly, she’d open up the court but refused to come in, instead giving Stephens the chance to reset the point with high balls and even a number of mildly sliced forehands. Until early in the second set, Halep was looking like a terribly limited player.
But I think what paid off most of all was Halep’s dedication, tenacity and fitness. The hard yards she puts in when preparing for her matches—the off-event weeks would probably make an NFL coach applaud—paid off repeatedly throughout the tournament. Not only did Halep refuse to go away, but she continued to throw punches with her forceful groundstrokes.
Steve, what do you think happened that helped turn the match around for Halep?
ENCORE—Simona Halep beats Sloane Stephens, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, to win her first Grand Slam title:
You’re right about the sympathy that Halep makes us feel. We’ve seen other players lose their first three or four majors—Ivan Lendl, Andy Murray, Caroline Wozniacki—and then break the curse, but watching Halep triumph today felt special because (a) she did it on the same court where she squandered a seemingly insurmountable lead 12 months ago, and (b) because she’s always been forthright about how nervous she gets, and what a battle it is for her to stay positive on court. And yet, she has kept at it, kept plugging through numerous painful losses in finals.
There’s also the relationship she has with her coach, Darren Cahill, and the never-ending quest they’ve been on to get her to No. 1, and get her a Slam title. Think of all the ups and downs they’ve been through together, many of them broadcast live during coaching visits. Every top player has a coach who is a significant part of his or her story, but it’s hard to think of a sweeter moment than seeing Simona and Darren finally getting their winning hug at Roland Garros today. I’m happy I was in the building for it.
How did this match turn around, you ask. We know exactly when it happened: with Stephens up 6-3, 2-0. In that game, she got to 15-15, and then 40-30 on Halep’s serve. But during those points, I felt like I could start to see her slowing down a little, or becoming tentative. I was waiting for something to give with her; she had been so smooth, so self-assured in her last three matches, but we both know that this is the moment—up a set and a break—when nerves are most likely to kick in. Once you reach that stage, it becomes your match to lose, and that’s when the weight of what you’re trying to do tends to press down. That’s exactly the stage Halep reached in last year’s final when she froze.
That weight pressed down hard on Sloane when she served at 2-1 in the second set. After grinding away brilliantly to that point, she suddenly looked exhausted. Maybe it was the exertion, maybe it was the rallies, maybe it was the moment, but the errors began to flow. Sloane’s game plan—absorb pace and counter-punch, Ali-style—had been rightfully praised this week, but it only works if you don’t make mistakes. She ended up with 39 unforced errors, 13 more than Simona.
At 2-2, Halep was in the match for the first time. To her credit, she responded by altering her game plan for the better; rather than try to dictate and end points against Sloane—a Herculean task here—Halep kept hitting forcefully without taking on too much risk. After failing to knock down Sloane’s wall, Halep built a bigger one herself.
“At the beginning I started too strong,” Halep admitted. “I started to hit the ball flat. I had nothing in those balls...And then I said I have to calm down, just try to open the court, try to put more balls in.
“Someone told me actually just run and not miss and you’re going to win,” Halep said with a laugh. “So I did today.”
Would you say this result was more about Sloane or Simona, Joel?
WATCH—Halep sits down with Tennis Channel's Steve Weissman after the match:
I’d say the shift and the eventual result started in Sloane’s hands, but finished in Halep’s. I earlier compared Stephens to Ali in her ability to control the speed and flow of this match—at least early on. In tennis terms, Stephens was akin to Martina Hingis, her eyes and feet propelling her to the ball and making it easy for her racquet to do great work. Through the opening set, and the first two games of the second, Stephens was the cat and Halep was the mouse. Halep seemed bereft of ideas.
But nerves manifest themselves in different ways. Some players hit too big. Others hit too small. For others, nervousness plays out in the feet. And with Stephens, up that seductive set and a break, it seemed like she stopped moving to the ball with as much conviction as she had through those early stages. So this in turn gave Halep more time and space; just a few seconds and inches was all she needed to feel more comfortable.
So commend Halep for starting with a crawl and then grubbing her way up and into the battle. To me, this is less about such sloppily used terms as “defense” and “offense.” Tennis is not always so obviously binary. It wasn’t just Halep’s retrieval abilities that allowed her to get back into this match and grab control of it. In her post-match press conference, Halep joked about her ability to simply run and hit another ball. But that doesn’t do her skills justice. Sure, she cut back on her errors. But she also began to apply pressure to Stephens. Hit one ball within two feet of the baseline and it might be scarcely meaningful. Hit a second ball that way and the opponent starts to recognize that you might be steady. But land three, four and five that deep and then, as Halep was today, you’re the one applying pressure.
It was surprising to see Stephens start missing. Be it at the US Open or here at Roland Garros, her tranquility under pressure is exemplary. But then again, clay is so stingy, so unwilling to let one big shot break open a point. And like Halep earlier in the match, Stephens didn’t come to net too often—a shame, considering her nimble volleying skills. But then again, clay can compel a reluctance to move forward.
What are your thoughts, Steve, on how what happened at Roland Garros will flavor the grass-court season for both Halep and Stephens?
VIDEO—Halep's post-match press conference:
As you said, it was a surprise to see Sloane start missing, and an outright shock to see her go from missing virtually nothing to missing virtually everything.
Stephens has always played it cool on court and off, always played the comedian in press conferences, and never let anyone see her sweat on court. After watching her hold her nerve through the US Open last year, through six matches here, and through a fiercely contested first set in the final, I was starting to believe that Sloane had found the perfect attitude toward these big moments. Unlike Halep, it seemed, Stephens didn’t take them too seriously to let them get to her.
I should have known better; no one is immune to close-out nerves, even Sloane. Afterward, she recovered quickly enough to be composed and gracious in her post-match speech, and she even encouraged Halep to lift the trophy over her head with a little more gusto. In her press conference, though, you could see that it stung; Sloane’s answers were unusually terse.
“I’m fine,” she said when a reporter asked if she was tired or nervous in the second set. “She just raised her level and started playing better. Sometimes it happens when you play an opponent.”
Still, it was a memorable run for Sloane, though I’m not sure how she’ll react at Wimbledon. This may take some time to get over, and the grass swing may come a little too soon. But I think the U.S. hard-court season sets up well for her. And if there’s anyone Sloane can take a lesson from about how to bounce back from a major-final defeat, it’s the woman she played today.
Halep was asked how she thinks it will feel to come to Wimbledon as a Grand Slam champion. She waved the question away—she needs to savor this one first, and she has certainly earned the “big party” she said her friends were organizing for her tonight.
Watching Halep put her hands over her face after Stephens’ last shot went into the net, I thought about her loss here last year to Jelena Ostapenko. Specifically, I thought about what Halep said afterward. As she accepted her runner-up plate, she urged her family and friends to “believe.” But it was hard in that moment to believe, after she had come so close and lost. How many more chances would she have? Halep has always had to play uphill against bigger hitters; would she really ever be able to scale the heights at Roland Garros again?
Twelve months later, instead of letting her opponent back in the match, Halep raced through the finish line. She said she “couldn’t breathe” in the last game, but she made all the shots she needed to make, and drilled a big first serve to end it. That’s what makes Halep a special athlete and personality: Her way of being—all at once—tough and vulnerable, nervous and fierce, fatalistic and persistent, volatile and consistent, a perfectionist and someone who takes the losses and keeps coming back.
As you said at the top of our discussion, Joel, Halep is “all in—and that why it’s so often been hard to witness her anguish.”
Halep is all in, and she lets us see it all. We knew how hard her road had been, because over the years we had seen it in her face and heard it in her words. Today we finally got to share her relief and joy.
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