A tantalizing women’s final: Stephens versus Halep

(Last Updated On: June 8, 2018)


FROM ROLAND GARROS — A year ago, Sloane Stephens couldn’t play. She was injured and far from happy. But every day, she would go into the practice courts and rebuild. She couldn’t play the French Open, but three weeks later, she felt good enough and went to Wimbledon. Mentally, she wasn’t ready yet, but she didn’t care, she just wanted to compete.

She lost in the first round at Wimbledon and in Washington. Then, in Toronto, she was feeling better, running around, hitting hard when she needed to. She was concentrating. She beat Petra Kvitova, Angie Kerber and Lucie Safarova before falling to  Caro Wozniacki.

In Cincinnati, the next week, she reached the semis again, beating Julia Goerges before losing against Simona Halep 6-2, 6-1.

Stephens and Halep will face off again on Saturday here in the final. It could be a very long contest.

Stephens is very tired, but still, she knows her strokes are solid, her first serve can be deadly, and she can hit it down the line, both sides. 

She won the 2017 US Open, for the first time. It wasn’t easy during those two weeks. In the quarters, she faced Anastasija Sevastova, and Stephens hung in there, even though she was a little bit off, winning it 7-6(4) in the third. In the semis, she faced against the seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams, and once again, it was deep in the third set. Stephens wouldn’t go away and she grabbed it 7-5 in the third. In the final, against Madison Keys, the Californian Stephens played almost perfectly and she won it, her first major.  

After that, she did almost nothing during the fall. She was mentally fried. When she started again in January, she says that she was slightly injured. She needed to find a new way, again.

“Didn’t have a good result in Australia, and I knew that I needed to change some things, and I did that and I had a great result in Miami. [She won it.]

“I had a great showing at Fed Cup, which I was really happy with. I had okay results this clay court season. I lost to some great players: Pliskova, Garcia. It’s not really anything to put your head down about. Just being able to recognize that I have had some really great ups and not so many hard downs, but just trying to stay consistent with the level, I think that’s worked best for me.”

Over the past 13 days, Stephens has been super consistent, but last week, she almost lost in the second round to Camila Giorgi, edging her 8-6 in the third. The American took a deep breath and raised her game. After that, she has been steady, and now, she has an opportunity, and she strikes within seconds.

On Saturday, she may not play wonderful tennis, but she will be right there against Halep.
   
“When you get to the final, obviously you have played well, but the person [Halep] that you are playing against also played well. So, I think I go in knowing it’s going to be a battle no matter what, no matter who you’re playing,” Stephens said. “Obviously anything could happen. I guess you could be playing No. 1 in the world or No. 90 in the world. It’s just basically going out and competing because the person you’re laying against has done the exact same thing as you.”

No. 1 Halep is so close to winning a Grand Slam. Last year in Paris, she reached the final, it looked like she could do it, but Jelena Ostapenko stunned her in three sets.

In 2014, in the final in the third set, it was 4-4, Halep versus Maria Sharapova. Halep backed up, Sharapova moved forward and the American/Russian won.

Now can Halep finally step it up and grab it? Nobody knows.

“I have more experience now. I feel calm,” Halep said. “So, I will stay chill. I will relax. And then we will see what is going to happen Saturday, but for sure I will fight for every ball.”

Prediction

For some players, the prospect of finally winning a major is more of a brick wall than a yellow brick road. Ask Ivan Lendl, who dropped four finals before breaking through in Paris in 1984.

Stephens is playing smart and consistent. She has slid through her matches easily, dropping only one set to Camila Giorgi. She should be fresh and ready to apply pressure on Halep, letting loose with her dynamite forehand when the court opens up.

Halep has lost two sets so far, overcoming a hiccup first set in the first round against American Alison Riske. She also had to fight off Kerber but dispatched the German easily in the second and third sets. Garbine Muguruza was rolling through the draw until she rammed into Halep.

Three important factors will be play tomorrow. First, Halep doesn’t seem to get tired, as she covers the court and the wide area outside the lines with real speed and determination. Second, she is playing with true aggression, looking for winners when she has the chance. The Romanian may be playing her best tennis ever.

But, the biggest factor is simple: Halep’s time has come. This is her third RG final and she’s been through a lot of heartache, especially when she let Jelena Ostapenko bully her last year. So, look to Simona to win straight out, in two close but demanding sets.

– Ron Cioffi

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