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

WATCH LIVE: Simona Halep, Sloane Stephens in French Open women’s final

Simona Halep, Sloane Stephens
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Simona Halep meets Sloane Stephens for the French Open women’s singles title, live on NBC and streaming on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Saturday at 9 a.m. ET.

Halep, guaranteed to keep her No. 1 ranking, is in a Grand Slam singles final for the fourth time, still seeking her first title. She lost the 2014 French Open final to Maria Sharapova, the 2017 French Open final to Jelena Ostapenko and the Australian Open final to Caroline Wozniacki on Jan. 27.

The American Stephens goes for her second Grand Slam singles title in nine months following her U.S. Open win in September. Stephens, who was ranked No. 957 last summer after missing 10 months with a foot injury, is guaranteed to be ranked No. 4 come Monday, the highest-ranked American.

WATCH LIVE: French Open women’s final, 9 a.m. ET — STREAM LINK

Ted Robinson handles play-by-play for NBC’s coverage, joined by analysts John McEnroe and Mary Carillo. This is NBC’s 36th straight year broadcasting the French Open.

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

Sloane Stephens into French Open final by winning all-American semi

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PARIS (AP) — When the French Open final was played a year ago, Sloane Stephens was nowhere near Roland Garros. She was in Chicago with coach Kamau Murray, working her way back from a foot injury that required surgery and sidelined her for 11 months.

“Indoors on a hard court. Getting ready for grass. Barely walking. Playing tennis next to a bunch of 5- and 6-year-old screaming kids,” Murray recalled. “So to be here from there, I think, is rewarding, because those times were not easy.”

The times are good now. Stephens closed in on her second Grand Slam title by beating pal Madison Keys 6-4, 6-4 on Thursday in the first all-American semifinal at the French Open since 2002. It also was a rematch of the U.S. Open final won by Stephens last September.

“It’s always hard playing someone from your country and such a good friend,” Stephens said, “so I was really pleased to be able to get through that and play some good tennis.”

The 10th-seeded Stephens’ opponent in Saturday’s final will be Simona Halep, who emphatically ended the impressive French Open run of 2016 champion Garbine Muguruza by defeating her 6-1, 6-4.

Halep, who assured herself of retaining the No. 1 ranking with the victory, earned a fourth chance to win her first major title.

She twice has lost in the final at Roland Garros — to Maria Sharapova in 2014 and to Jelena Ostapenko in 2017 — and was the runner-up to Caroline Wozniacki at the Australian Open in January.

“I lost three times until now and no one died,” Halep said, “so it will be OK.”

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

Muguruza, a two-time major champion, entered the semifinals having not lost a set in the tournament. She also was coming off a lopsided victory in the quarterfinals a day earlier, overwhelming Sharapova 6-2, 6-1.

But it took Muguruza quite a while to get going against Halep, who managed to keep sending ball after ball back over the net.

Backed by fans who loudly chanted her first name between games, Halep went ahead 3-0 with the help of only one winner. Of her first 14 points, 13 arrived via errors by Muguruza — nine unforced, four forced.

It was 5-0 by the time Muguruza eventually claimed a game.

Muguruza’s last stand came at 4-all in the second set, a 13-minute game in which she held three break points. But she failed to convert any of those, and Halep held there, before breaking at love to end it.

While the Romanian sometimes has trouble with so much on the line, Stephens has been perfect in title matches on the WTA tour, going 6-0.

“I mean, there is no formula. I didn’t, like, try to do it. I’m not trying to break a record. It’s just how it’s happened for me,” Stephens said, “I think once I get going in a tournament, I’m pretty consistent, which is good. I just try to keep that going.”

She had never made it past the fourth round on the red clay of Paris until now. This year, she was two points from defeat in the third round against Camila Giorgi of Italy before turning that match around.

Stephens hasn’t dropped a set since.

“When you make it out of that,” Murray said, “you build a little bit of confidence.”

Like Halep, Stephens is an incredibly talented defensive player, and she kept stretching points Thursday until Keys would err.

In all, Keys made 41 unforced errors, 30 more than Stephens.

“It’s really tough to get any ball by her, but especially today, she was neutralizing so well. And she was hitting so many deep, heavy balls, that I really felt like I was having to go for a lot,” said Keys, who is now 0-3 against Stephens.

“There is a lot of times where I feel like she made the ball by a centimeter,” Keys continued, “and I was missing it. Just one of those days where I think she played incredibly well.”

There was a stretch after winning the U.S. Open that Stephens did not manage to do that.

Ever.

She endured an eight-match losing streak after leaving New York, going 0-6 for the rest of 2017 and then 0-2 to begin 2018, including a first-round loss at the Australian Open.

“Life came at me fast after the U.S. Open,” said Stephens, whose late father, John, was the 1988 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year with the New England Patriots.

She regrouped and got headed back in the right direction. At the Miami Open in March, she won the title, beating four major champions in a row.

Now she stands between Halep and her first Grand Slam trophy.

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