Simona Halep-Sloane Stephens: tennis' best & most bruising new rivalry

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Simona Halep's title-winning point at the 2018 French Open, against Sloane Stephens:

“She makes me play better and better every time we meet each other,” Simona Halep said of Sloane Stephens after beating—surviving may be the better word—the American, 7-6 (6), 3-6, 6-4, in the final of the Rogers Cup on Sunday.

Stephens didn’t hesitate to return the compliment.

“Every time I play her, she makes me a better player, she makes me raise my level,” Stephens said of Halep, who also won their grueling three-set final at Roland Garros two months ago. “Sometimes you gotta get your butt kicked the hard way, and that’s OK.”

Sloane and Simona have formed their own two-woman mutual-admiration society this year; more important, they’ve begun to form the most brutally entertaining rivalry in tennis. The WTA has had an abundance of interesting story lines in 2018, from the returns of Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova, to the Grand Slam breakthroughs by Halep and Caroline Wozniacki, to the return of Angelique Kerber, to the emergence of a new generation of potential stars such as Daria Kasatkina, Naomi Osaka and Aryna Sabalenka. But the tour has lacked a reliable rivalry at the top of the rankings. With Halep and Stephens, the No. 1 and 3 players in the world, it has one.

While they have different backgrounds and come from different parts of the world, the 26-year-old Romanian and the 25-year-old American are mirror images on court. Halep described Stephens’ game as “complex” today, and that’s a pretty good description of Halep’s as well. Both women are comfortable defending and counterpunching, but they’re also perfectly capable of taking the offensive when necessary.

While that combination makes life tough on their opponents, it can also lead to tactical confusion and frustration for Sloane and Simona—they know they’re at their best when they’re attacking, but it’s still tempting for them to sit back and retrieve. Their coaches, Darren Cahill and Kamau Murray, are constantly battling to get them to step forward into the court. “I don’t want to see your feet in Montreal anymore,” Murray said to Stephens on Sunday. It was his way of urging her to stay in front of the Montreal logo at the back of the court.

Put those two styles and mentalities together and you get matches like Sunday’s: close and brutal. “Bruising” was the word that used most often during its two hours and 41 minutes, and it was an apt one. Halep was treated for a toe blister, and both women looked ready to throw in the towel at various points. But neither did. Instead, they pushed and pulled each other through countless 20-plus shot rallies, countless break points and service breaks, and countless momentum swings—which began in the second game and continued all the way until Halep served it out on her second try, and on her fourth match point.

Those rallies weren’t a surprise, but at times the resilience of both players was. As the first set lengthened into a mini-epic, it seemed that whoever lost it was likely to lose the second set as well. Instead, Stephens bounced right back, broke early, and leveled the match. Then, early in the third set, it looked as if Halep was on her last legs. She had a blister, she was bent over after each point, and she could only watch as Stephens fired forehand winners past her. When Sloane went up 40-15 at 2-2, she appeared to be on the verge of pulling away. Instead, Halep came back to break, held serve, and broke again for 5-2.

Stephens had one more comeback in her, and she made it dramatic at the end—that was only fitting on a day when so little separated the two finalists. But I thought she lost this match for the same reason that she lost the French Open final to Halep. In Paris, Stephens led by a set and a break, and then froze when the finish line came into view. In Montreal, the shift wasn’t as drastic, but it happened in the same place in the match. Just when Sloane seemed poised to take the lead for good at 2-2 in the third, she didn’t.

Stephens will learn to believe she can beat Halep in these types of matches; today she made the third set much closer than she did in Paris. For now, though, the Romanian is a little steadier with her shots, and that steadiness gives her a little more confidence that she can outlast Stephens down the stretch.

Yet today wasn’t about who was better and who was worse; it was about the quality and drama of the contest itself, which were among the best the WTA has had to offer this season.

“Both matches were crazy good,” Halep said of this final and the French Open final.

This one was better. I can’t wait to see the next one.

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