French Open Day 14 Preview: The Women’s Final

Sloane Stephens in 6-0 in tournament finals. Simona Halep is 0-3 in major finals. Will both of those streaks be extended or extinguished?

Simona Halep (zimbio.com)

World Number One Simona Halep has a lot of demons to exercise on Saturday, especially Parisian ones.  Twice before she’s made it to this stage of the French Open, and twice before has fell just short of the finish line.

Four years ago, she played an over three-hour, grueling final against Maria Sharapova, losing 6-4 in the third. That loss in her first major final was tantalizing, yet digestible.  It was her loss here last year that was a real crusher. She was up a set and a break against a 20-year-old who had never won a WTA title of any kind, yet still went down in defeat. And just this year in Melbourne, she survived match points in two separate prolonged battles, as well as an ankle injury, yet lost another three-set major final 6-4 in the third.  Despite all of that baggage, Simona continues to get right back on her feet and put herself into a winning position again. She’s now held the number one ranking for the better part of the past year, and finds herself in her third final out of the last five majors. The top-ranked player now leads the tour with 34 wins in 2018. Can Simona finally have her Grand Slam moment?  Or will she join a list of players to lose their first four major finals, which includes Ivan Lendl, Kim Clijsters, and Andy Murray? If you’re Simona, that list should relieve some tension from your body on Saturday, as those three players all went on to win multiple majors. If she were to lose today, all hope is not lost. In the semifinals on Friday, she brought her best stuff and outhit an in-form Garbine Muguruza in impressive fashion.  But can she do the same for two full sets in today’s final?

Newly-Anointed American Number One Sloane Stephens’ comeback story is pretty remarkable.  A year ago, she was just returning to the court after missing almost a full year of tennis due to a foot injury.  Strangely enough, it was following a loss to Halep in Washington DC last summer when she went on a 15-2 run on the North American hard courts, including a shocking run to her first major title.  Then she startlingly went on an eight-match losing streak from September of last year until February of this year. A return to the USA helped Sloane get her groove back, as she won her first Premier Mandatory event in Miami.  And after a lackluster clay court season, she’s now found success outside of the US, and is into her second major final. Sloane does not shrink on big occasions such as this: in fact, she plays her best tennis.

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Halep has a 5-2 edge in their head-to-head, and has prevailed the last four times they played.  That dates back to their only meeting at Roland Garros in 2014. On clay, Halep is 2-0. All seven of their matches have been straights sets, which is not shocking considering how streaky Stephens can be, as well as Halep’s old tendency to go away when she’s down early in a match.  That old habit can still pop up from time to time, though Simona has put a lot of mental energy into correcting that pattern. Exhibit A would be her quarterfinal comeback against Angelique Kerber after going down two breaks to start that match.

Both players have similar games: great defensive skills, a low number of unforced errors, and high-percentage offense at the right times.  However, the deciding factor in this match may go beyond the X’s and O’s. It may come down to who can play more freely at the decisive moments, and history shows Stephens is the much more likely candidate for that role.  Halep is the more likely candidate to have an off day following a top-notch semifinal effort, especially under the weight of this occasion. All things considered, the result here is very much in doubt. In yet another Grand Slam event, the women’s draw has been more unpredictable and intriguing.  Hopefully we get a high-quality final, but we’re guaranteed an emotional one.

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