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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FRENCH OPEN: TV/Stream Schedule | Scores | Men’s Draw (PDF) | Women’s Draw

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Sofia Goggia loses pole, wins race by .01

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ST. MORITZ, Switerland (AP) — An Italian 1-2 edging Mikaela Shiffrin into third place. This movie has been seen before in the women’s World Cup this season.

By the smallest margin, Italy’s Sofia Goggia won a super-G on Saturday and Mikaela Shiffrin was third, which helped extend her overall standings lead.

Goggia was just 0.01 second faster than her teammate Federica Brignone on a sunny, windswept mountain above the high-end resort of St. Moritz.

Shiffrin was only 0.13 behind Goggia for her sixth podium finish in eight World Cup races so far as she seeks a fourth straight overall title.

It was the second time in two weeks that Shiffrin stood looking up at two Italians. It also happened in a giant slalom at Killington, Vt., where Marta Bassino edged Brignone for victory.

“They are all great skiers and they have a really aggressive mindset,” Shiffrin said of her friendly rivalry with the Italy team. “It’s super cool to see.”

Brignone was sitting in the leader’s box when Goggia raced and applauded with hands above her head after seeing her teammate’s time.

“It’s an amazing thing for all the team to share the podium and share happiness,” said Brignone, though acknowledging it hurt to lose by so little.

“It’s one hundredth so it burns. A lot,” she said.

Goggia’s seventh World Cup win was her third in super-G. She also took silver at the biennial world championships in February when Shiffrin won by just 0.02.

Always one of the most flamboyant racers, Goggia seemed at the limit making some turns and lost a ski pole landing a jump near the end.

The 2018 Olympic downhill champion said she had to let the pole go after soaring “too long, too high” at the jump.

Goggia also held nothing back standing atop the podium, loudly and heartily singing her national anthem, known by its opening line of Fratelli d’Italia, with eyes closed.

In a tight race, 10 racers were within one second of the winner. Nicole Schmidhofer, the 2017 World champion on this course, was fourth and there was a three-way tie for sixth.

By placing 10th, Viktoria Rebensburg rose to lead the super-G standings after two races. The German racer is also second overall though her World Cup points total is less than half of Shiffrin’s 532 tally.

“For now, she [Shiffrin] is unbeatable for the overall,” said Brignone, who is third.

Shiffrin won this race last year, and also added victory in the parallel slalom to sweep the weekend series.

Shiffrin later said she will skip Sunday’s parallel event — just the third time she has skipped a tech race since she burst onto the World Cup scene in 2012 — to prepare for a giant slalom in Courchevel, France, on Tuesday and a downhill and combined in Val d’Isere next weekend.

“There are quite a few reasons for this but at the top of the list is that for several years I have been longing to race Val d’Isere but have never been able to because the @fisalpine schedule is always too tough (for those who race in all disciplines),” was posted on Shiffrin’s social media. “But one of my goals this season is to get on that track and to race a little more speed in general so I’m trying to manage energy and focus accordingly!”

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Brittany Bowe breaks record shared with Bonnie Blair, Heather Bergsma

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Brittany Bowe broke a record she shared with Bonnie Blair and Heather Bergsma by winning her seventh straight World Cup 1000m on Saturday in Nagano, Japan.

Bowe clocked 1:14.344, taking the track record from Olympic silver medalist Nao Kodaira and distancing Olympic bronze medalist Miho Takagi and Dutchwoman Sanneke de Neeling by .55.

Bowe, fourth and eighth in the event at her two Olympics, is averaging better than a half-second margin of victory during her streak dating to last season, a significant gap to the rest of the field. She lowered track records in six of her seven wins, plus broke the world record and added a world championships gold.

“I’ve got a lot of losses under my belt. With how sweet the wins are, the losses are just as tough,” Bowe told Dutch broadcaster NOS. “There are some races that I’m not pleased with, and I’d like to be on the top of that 1500m podium. So that one’s keeping me hungry.”

Bowe, a past world champion and former world-record holder at 1500m, last won at that distance in February.

Her latest 1000m victory broke a tie with Blair and Bergsma for the U.S. record for consecutive women’s World Cup 1000m victories, according to schaatsstatistieken.nl. Blair won all six of her World Cup 1000m starts in the 1993-94 Olympic season, while Bergsma took six straight in 2016-17.

Only German Anni Friesinger-Postma has more consecutive World Cup wins at the distance with eight in the 2007-08 season, according to the website. For the men, Shani Davis won 12 straight from 2008-10.

Bowe, a former Florida Atlantic point guard who missed all of 2016-17 with a concussion, is up to 26 career World Cup wins. That’s fifth on the U.S. all-time list behind Blair (69), Davis (58), Dan Jansen (46) and Bergsma (34), according to schaatsstatistieken.nl.

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