Simona Halep tops Sloane Stephens for first French Open title

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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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Ehsan Hadadi, Iran’s first Olympic track and field medalist, has coronavirus

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Ehsan Hadadi, Iran’s lone Olympic track and field medalist, tested positive for the coronavirus, according to World Athletics and an Iranian news agency.

“We’ve received word from several Asian journalists that Iranian discus thrower Ehsan Hadadi has tested positive for coronavirus,” according to World Athletics. “[Hadadi] trains part of the year in the US, but was home in Tehran when he contracted the virus.”

Hadadi, 35, became the first Iranian to earn an Olympic track and field medal when he took silver in the discus at the 2012 London Games. Hadadi led through four of six rounds before being overtaken by German Robert Harting, who edged the Iranian by three and a half inches.

He was eliminated in qualifying at the Rio Olympics and placed seventh at last fall’s world championships in Doha.

Jordan Larson preps for her last Olympics, one year later than expected

Jordan Larson
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Whether the Tokyo Olympics would have been this summer or in 2021, Jordan Larson knew this: It will mark her final tournament with the U.S. volleyball team, should she make the roster.

“I’m just not getting any younger,” said Larson, a 33-year-old outside hitter. “I’ve been playing consistently overseas for 12 years straight with no real offseason.

“I also have other endeavors in my life that I want to see. Getting married, having children, those kinds of things. The older I get, the more challenging those become.”

Larson, who debuted on the national team in 2009, has been a leader the last two Olympic cycles. She succeeded Christa Harmotto Dietzen as captain after the Rio Games. Larson started every match at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

As long as Larson was in the building, the U.S. never had to worry about the outside hitter position, said two-time Olympian and NBC Olympics volleyball analyst Kevin Barnett.

“She played as if she belonged from the start,” he said. “They will miss her all-around capability. They’ll miss her ability to make everyone around her better. She’s almost like having a libero who can hit.”

Karch Kiraly, the Olympic indoor and beach champion who took over as head coach after the 2012 Olympics, gushed about her court vision.

“It’s a little dated now, but somebody like Wayne Gretzky just saw things that other people didn’t see on the hockey rink,” Kiraly said in 2018. “And I remember reading about him one time, and the quote from an opposing goalie was, oh my god, here he comes, what does he see that I don’t see right now? She sees things sooner than most people.”

Larson grew up in Hooper, Neb., (population 830) and starred at the University of Nebraska. She was a three-time All-American who helped the team win a national title as a sophomore. She had the opportunity to leave Nebraska and try out for the Olympics in 2008 but chose to remain at school for her final season.

She earned the nickname “Governor” as a Cornhusker State sports icon.

Larson helped the U.S. win its first major international title at the 2014 World Championship. She was also part of the program’s two stingers — defeats in the 2012 Olympic final and 2016 Olympic semifinals, both matches where the U.S. won the first set (and convincingly in 2012).

“It just gives me chills thinking about it now,” Larson said of the Rio Olympic semifinals, where Serbia beat the U.S. 15-13 in the fifth. “That team, we put in so much. Not just on the court but off the court working on culture and working on how are we best for each other. How can we be the best team? How can we out-team people? Certain teams have a better one player that’s a standout that we maybe didn’t have or don’t have. So how can we out-team the other teams? We had just put in so much work that was just heartbreaking.”

Larson and the Americans rebounded to win the bronze-medal match two days later.

“I don’t know anybody that didn’t have their heart ripped out. It was just a soul-crusher of a match,” Kiraly said of the semifinal. “More meaningful was what a great response everybody, including Jordan, mounted to the disappointment of that loss.”

The U.S. took fifth at worlds in 2018 and is now ranked second in the world behind China.

Larson spent the past club season in Shanghai. The campaign ended in mid-January. She hadn’t heard anything about the coronavirus when she took her scheduled flight back to California, learning days later that LAX started screening for it. Now, she’s working out from her garage.

Larson is in line to become the fifth-oldest U.S. Olympic women’s volleyball player in history, according Olympedia and the OlyMADMen.

Her decade of experience could go a long way to help the next generation of outside hitters, led by three-time NCAA champion and Sullivan Award winner Kathryn Plummer.

“If you’re coming into the USA program as an outside hitter, in the next year or the quad or the quad after that,” Barnett said, “the measuring stick is going to be Jordan Larson.”

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