PARIS (AP) — Maybe all of those losses in Grand Slam finals helped Simona Halep actually win one.
She’d gone 0-3 in matches with a major trophy on the line before facing Sloane Stephens for the French Open title Saturday, so there was plenty to remember: what it felt like to give a lead away, to make a key mistake, to walk away with regrets.
“All the experience from those three finals that I lost … was a positive thing,” Halep said, “and gave me a little bit more power to believe.”
Halep added Grand Slam trophy No. 1 to her No. 1 ranking, coming back from a set and a break down to beat Stephens 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 and win the championship at Roland Garros in a match made up of long points and key momentum swings.
“That’s the most important thing — that I stay there focused,” said Halep, the first Romanian to collect a major title since her manager, Virginia Ruzici, at the 1978 French Open. “I believed. And I never gave up.”
The 26-year-old Halep was describing this particular match. She could have been speaking about her career.
Halep lost two previous finals at Roland Garros — against Maria Sharapova in 2014, then Jelena Ostapenko in 2017 despite leading by a set and 3-0 in the second. Her third runner-up finish came against Caroline Wozniacki at the Australian Open in January.
“Been kicked in the stomach a couple of times when she’s had chances,” said Halep’s coach, Darren Cahill. “They say the destination is more beautiful if there’s a bit of a bumpy road and you eventually get there. And that’s what happened to her today.”
On a muggy afternoon, Halep began slowly, unable to solve Stephens, the 10th-seeded American who won her first Grand Slam title at last year’s U.S. Open. Both women are adept at defense, figuring out ways — via speed, strength, skill and instinct — to get nearly every ball back over the net. They’re also both able to switch to offense in a snap.
Those traits lent themselves to engaging exchanges of 10 strokes, 20 strokes or more, sometimes interrupted by spectators who would gasp or begin to clap, thinking that a point was over when it still was not.
The players were not trading looping shots, mind you, meant merely to keep the ball between the lines. For the most part, they were violent smacks at the ball, delivered with the intention of ending a point. It often seemed effortless for Stephens, who broke for a 3-1 edge when Halep put a forehand in the net.
When Halep ended a 14-stroke point by pushing a backhand wide, Stephens owned the first set. She wheeled toward her box, which included U.S. national soccer team player Jozy Altidore, and shook a fist. Not much after that, Stephens broke to begin the second set, then held for a 2-0 lead. It appeared she was on her way to improving to 7-0 in tournament finals.
And then, suddenly, everything changed. Stephens started missing. A double-fault here. A forehand into the net there. A backhand wide. Another long. Halep took 15 of 18 points and four games in a row.
Both Halep and Cahill thought Stephens looked a little gassed.
From 4-all in the second, Halep grabbed seven games in a row to take that set and build a 5-0 edge in third.
One key: Halep began putting a little more air under the ball, being a little less aggressive, waiting for Stephens to make mistakes. That worked. Stephens ended up with 39 unforced errors, 13 more than Halep.
Boisterous fans pushed Halep throughout, chanting “See-moe-nah! See-moe-nah!” When the match ended, Halep dropped her racket at the baseline and covered her face with her hands. Soon enough, she was climbing up into the stands to share a big hug with Cahill.
During the trophy ceremony, Stephens — more experienced in such matters, given her triumph in New York last September — noticed that Halep was casually holding her new silver trophy. Stephens indicated to Halep she should raise it proudly overhead.
“You have been waiting for this,” Stephens would say later. “So you better put it up in the air and show them what you got today.”
Halep listened. Now she will proudly display that bit of hardware at home.
She yearned for a Grand Slam title to go with her WTA ranking. Took some missteps along the way, but she has what she wanted.
“Her journey has been tough. And she had a heartbreak here last year and in Australia and all the things that have happened to her,” Stephens said. “I mean, it’s a great story and just a great moment for her.”
NBC’s French Open coverage concludes Sunday with the men’s final between Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem at 9 a.m. ET.
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