Simona Halep is the new French Open champion, securing the title on her third attempt in three years to erase the disappointment of last year when she lost having led by a set and a break.
Ironically this year she recovered from a set and break down to stop Sloane Stephens from winning her second grand slam title within a year.
Consequently the Romanian can finally breathe a sigh of relief at having won her first major to give credence to her position as the world’s current best female.
I tried to not do the same thing as last year. It’s a dream and it’s so special to do it here in Paris. When I was down a break in the second set I just tried to relax and enjoy the match. Simona Halep
The title was her ‘dream’ ever since her 14th year and she secured it after a gruelling two-hour, three-minute match 3-6 6-4 6-1 on a breezy but sunny day at Roland Garros in what she described as her ‘special city’.
“Last year it was tough to talk because I lost this match,” said Halep now only the second Romanian to win a Slam following Virginia Ruzici success at the 1978 French Open. “But it’s emotional to be making this speech as a winner. I’ve been dreaming of this since I was 14.”
Stephens, the 10th seed, produced some brilliant tennis to roar into a 6-3 3-0 lead and looked set to collect her second major title to add to the won she won at Flushing Meadows last September, but then wilted as Halep found her game and the match intensified. In the decider the Romanian virtually played a flawless game making only five unforced errors coming close to handing her tiring American opponent a bagel.
The 26-year-old celebrated her victory by climbing into her players box to greet friends and family and in particular, her coach Darren Cahill, the man who finally guided her to her first major achievement – all after an acrimonious parting with her resulting in her begging him following a spate of poor form.
“I tried to not do the same thing as last year. It’s a dream and it’s so special to do it here in Paris. When I was down a break in the second set I just tried to relax and enjoy the match.”
Despite all the vocal support Halep was getting from the stands where a very large contingent of Romanians were located she fell behind under an onslaught of winners off the Stephens racket who was always the better player when it came to the baseline rallies. With her big forehand keeping Halep at bay, she broke through to take a 4-1 lead.
The 25-year-old American, who was ranked 957 in the world less than a year ago after her injury woes, was using her superior power to good effect as Halep struggled to make any inroads into her opponent’s serve.
She did manage to make Stephens serve for the set, though, and was stepping into the court with more authority, bringing up her first break point.
But Halep wasted the chance with her 10th unforced error and Stephens made her pay, drilling an unreturnable backhand into the corner to wrap up the set after just 41 minutes
Another Grand Slam final defeat for Halep looked on the cards as soon as Stephens broke her in the opening game of the second set on her fourth break point.
But the bitter experience of last year proved a great motivator as she struck back immediately to the delight of the crowd and then went on a winning streak snatching 12 of the next 13 points to take four games on the trot as the Stephens forehand started to misfire.
Having lost the momentum, Stephens started to look fatigued but she recovered sufficiently to break back to level at 4-all but failed to halt Haleps drive to take the set and level the match as the US champion fired a backhand wide on the first set point.
Halep was now on a good run and she gained control of the decider as she broke immediately and then gained a double break in the fourth game where there were some exciting exchanges as Stephens attempted to get back into contention.
It was a late flurry but it didn’t prevent Halep from serving out. Sealing victory when Stephens returned a forehand into the net on the first match-point.
Great delight in the Halep camp at finally breaking her duck and disappointment on her opponent’s side who commented on receiving her runners-up plate: “It’s been amazing here for me. It’s not the trophy I wanted, but it’s still beautiful!”
Halep’s success in the meantime, matched Chris Evert who also lost three grand slam finals before capturing the French Open in 1974.
“It’s a motivation and inspiration,” Halep said in her postmatch interview in the company of the last Romanian who had her name inscribed on the Suzanne Lenglen trophy in 1978, Virginia Ruzici.
“Forty years ago she won here,” Halep, who was the junior French Open champion 10 years ago, said. “It’s a special moment. The fact that it’s happened here, it’s pretty special. So yeah, she’s an inspiration.”
“There is of course a lot of emotion,” Ruzici told reporters. “She was very close last season. She was favourite for this final but it was not simple. It was a physical and mental fight. Simona gave her heart on the court.”
Halep reached the top of the rankings last October and by beating Spain’s former French Open champion Garbine Muguruza in the semi-finals she guaranteed that she extended her stay as the world’s number one player — a position she has held now for 32 weeks in total.
But her main ambition was to clutch that Suzanne Lenglen trophy and, on realising that ambition, released a flood of tears.
“I’m really happy that I won this Grand Slam. Because being number one without a Grand Slam, I always said, is not like everything, not 100 percent,” she said.
“It’s my favourite Grand Slam. I always said that if I’m going to win one, I want it to be here.”
She confirmed that her loss year proved to be an inspiration as well as she remembered how Jelena Ostapenko had turned the matc around from a losing position.
“When I started to win games, I said that last year it happened to me, the same thing,” she said. “I was a set and a break up and I lost the match. So I said there is a chance to come back and win it.”
And as the records show, she did just that.
“I said that I have to calm down, just to try to open the court, try to put more balls in,” she revealed. “And at one point I felt that she started to feel a little bit tired and to miss more. So I was patient.”
Preceding the match the tournament and fans rose to pay their respects to the seven time Grand Slam champion from Brazil, Maria Bueno, whose death at 78 had been announced earlier in the morning.