A tantalizing women’s final: Stephens versus Halep

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.”


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

The fast hitters: Halep to face Muguruza in semis

FROM ROLAND GARROS — Simona Halep plays fantastic when she is driving and feeling very smart. Then, when she is close to winning a Grand Slam, she can get nervous and back off. The great thing on Wednesday, in the second and third set, she pushed herself from the backcourt, swinging away and bashing the ball. She beat Angie Kerber 6-7 6-3 6-2 and advanced into the semis. She will face Garbinw Muguruza, who powered past Maria Sharapova 61, 6-2.

Halep is so quick, so fast, so steady. She hits with a lot of spin, and she can flatten it out, too, from both sides. She moves around her serves, and her first serve can touch the corners. At the net, when she stops and focuses, she reacts, quickly, then touch the ball converts winners. At times, it is very difficult for her. Other times, it is simple. 

Today, the two-time Grand Slam champion  Kerber wasn’t crushing it, because allegedly, she was hurt. So all Halep had to do was to react, simple stuff, and win it. She did happily.

Now she has to face Muguruza, who brutalized Sharapova. The Spaniard jumped on the Russian/American almost immediately. She was moving extremely well, blasting her first serve, whipping her forehand and flipping her backhand. Inside, she realized that four years ago, she wasn’t ready yet to threaten Sharapova, but now she thinks the she can run faster, hit harder and push her back. Sharapova will continue to get better this year, but still, she cannot try to attack her shots every time. Today, that was a big mistake.

On Thursday, Muguruza will clash with Halep. Muscle time for both of them.

Here is some good quotes by Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys from a story I wrote for Tennis.com. They like each other a lot, but as she said, when they walk on the court, it’s all focusing, rather than talking.

2017 top players: women’s 1-5

will review 2017’s top 30 women and men, our annual feature.

No. 1: Simona Halep
It is amazing that the Romanian ended the year as No. 1. She has yet to win a major, but still, she was remarkably consistent in 2017. The very steady Simona only won one tournament, in Madrid. Beyond that, she reached a number of finals — and she lost in Rome, Roland Garros, Cincy and Beijing. She has had some terrific wins, and mediocre losses. She is quite strong, can runs forever and keeps her chin up. Simona has come close to winning a Grand Slam. Without a doubt, in 2018, she will get another opportunity in a final. The only way to actually raise the trophy is not to back off —  at all.   

No 2: Garbiñe Muguruza
The Spaniard played so much better this season, at least when she began in May, and then, she was ready to be rock on. She won Wimbledon, smashing her forehand and backhand, moving forward very quickly and nailing her serve. Also, she prevailed in Cincinnati, smoking Kristina Pliskova and Halep. However, she began to fade, and she did not win another tournament. That’s why she is No. 2, not No. 1, and she should stay there for more than just a few weeks. The Spaniard won the WTA Player of the Year award. She is getting better all the time, and she will win another Slam in 2018 In order to do so, she needs to locked it and stay there. 

No 3: Caroline Wozniacki
Props to the Dane. In 2016, she was fading, badly. But in 2017, she returned and she was ready to push herself without moving backwards all the time. She ended the year winning the WTA Final, knocking down Halep, Pliskova and Venus Williams, along with Tokyo. Still the year was filled with near misses when she lost six finals. The great thing about Caro is she never gives up, truly. Yes, on court, when she gets upset because she can’t find the lines, and she was afraid to try to put together a winner. In the fall, she had to, one way or another. And she did. Can the veteran win a Grand Slam in 2018? I have no idea, because years ago, I thought she would. But now, she has improved her forehand a little bit. This is the last time: Caro can win either the Aussie Open or the US Open. Pick-em.
No. 4: Karolina Pliskova
The Czech can look so, so good, and there are other times that she checks out mentally. She is tall, has a massive first serve, can move into the net and put it away. But, each week, she is often up in the air. She has won a number of huge matches, but she has yet to win a major. She has come close, but right at the end, her eyes started to glaze. She is faster running now than she used to be, and she is pretty quick when she is rushing towards the net. With her volley, she is the best player at the net, with the exception of Serena. But can Karolina finally win a major? I would say yes, in 2018, but she has to focus for two straight weeks.  

No. 5: Venus Williams
Venus just keeps going and going. She is 37 years old. While she’s a little bit slower now, she still has a great backhand, a massive first serve, and occasionally, commanding at the net. Also, her forehand has gotten a little bit better, and shows more power. It has only taken Venus 20 years on the WTA tour to figure out how to drive her forehand deep. That has been a long time, but the reality is, she always wants to improve, which is excellent. In 2018, she will win a few more titles, but to grab a Slam again? That is very difficult. She has won seven majors, but the last time was in 2008, at Wimbledon, and that was a long time ago. You have to give her another shot in 2018, at Wimbledon again. So let’s see that she can change her tactics in the final.