Published On: Fri, Jun 8th, 2018

French Open final preview: 4th time's the charm?

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Simona Halep’s forays into Grand Slam finals feel like part of some cosmic, Job-ian test of resolve. Three times she’s played in a Slam final, three times she’s gone to a deciding set, three times she’s come within two of three games of the finish line, and three times she’s lost.

With every final before Saturday’s match against Sloane Stephens, each one more heartbreaking than the last, it seems she’s gotten a little bit closer. She was neck and neck with Maria Sharapova eight games into the final set of the 2014 French Open final before Sharapova managed one last push and won the last eight points of the match. Back in the final at Roland Garros last year, she led Jelena Ostapenko 6-3, 3-0, with break points to go up 4-0. She wound up losing the second set, going up a break again in the third, and then losing the last five games of the match amid a hail of Ostapenko winners. In this year’s Australian Open final, she led Caroline Wozniacki by a break in the third set, with just two service holds separating her from the title. She got broken twice in a row and came up empty again.

With luck …


Halep’s spirit has somehow remained unbowed through all this. She’s managed to turn those losses into lessons, using the experiences to learn more about herself and meaningfully grow as a competitor and a tactician. She’s now the top-ranked woman in the world, and has reached the final at Roland Garros for a third time, on the heels of one of the most impressive Grand Slam performances of her career.

“Maybe the fourth time will be with luck,” Halep said after the loss to Wozniacki in Melbourne.

Maybe she won’t need luck – she’s facing a first-time French Open finalist who she’s beaten four times in a row – but at this point, she deserves some. For the hundredth time, it feels like Halep’s time. How much more disappointment can she endure?

Stephens will hope to extend that string of disappointments a little longer.

The ascendant American has had a whirlwind 12 months. She returned from foot surgery last summer after a hiatus that lasted nearly a year, lost the first two matches she played, then suddenly surged to the semifinals in both Toronto and Cincinnati before marching all the way to her first Grand Slam title at the US Open. After that, she immediately fell into a rut, losing her next nine matches, then rebounded again to win her first Premier Mandatory in Miami.

Much as her game may appear suited to the surface, Stephens never had much success on red clay before this tournament. She’d never been past the fourth round at the French Open, and went just 4-4 during the clay swing leading up to it. But with an assist from a favorable draw and a bump from a miraculous comeback win over Camila Giorgi in the third round, Stephens has found her footing. She’s played her typical brand of smothering defense, has looked fluid and confident sliding into her shots, and seems to have developed a feel for how to use the surface’s kicky bounce to her advantage.

So, you have one player who’s always been at her best on clay, and another who’s just starting to unlock what she’s capable of on it. Who will be with luck?

What to expect


It will be fascinating to see how Halep’s newfound aggressiveness plays against Stephens’ retrieving ability. If Madison Keys’ artillery couldn’t dent Stephens’ armor, how can Halep’s? Conversely, how will Stephens’ patient parrying from the back of the court hold up against Halep’s consistency? Neither player is particularly comfortable coming to net, so they’ll likely be content to slug it out and let the match be decided from the baseline. Neither player is liable to beat herself, and with their collective speed, smarts, athleticism, and versatility, the matchup is a recipe for a punishing war of attrition.

Both women can shift seamlessly between defense and offense, and can be as dominant in the return game as in the service game. Both can be overly passive, but can also reach out and take control of a match when the situation demands it. In other words, there may not be much clarity about which player has the edge, in a rally or a game or the match as a whole. Winning will likely require a good deal of shapeshifting and in-match adjustments, but more than anything it will require physical and mental resilience.

Stay chill

Halep has the 5-2 head-to-head edge, including a 2-0 mark on clay. But Stephens is also 6-0 lifetime in finals, succeeding where Halep has so often failed; which is to say, having the confidence to find on-the-fly solutions when things aren’t working, insulating herself from the magnitude of the moment, and finding a happy medium between freedom and urgency – between holding on too tight and letting go entirely.

Still, it feels like Halep has been building to this moment for too long, and has undergone too much self-reflection, to let it slip away again. At a certain point, losing has nothing left to teach you.

“I lost three times until now and no one died, so it will be OK,” she told reporters after her semifinal win. “I think I will be more confident, because I have a lot of experience. But in tennis, you never know, so I will stay chill.”

The pick: Halep in 3 sets



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