Simona Halep banishes painful memories to claim maiden Grand Slam with win over Sloane Stephens at Roland Garros

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Finally: Halep clinched a first Slam title on her fourth attempt.

Simona Halep erased the painful memories from last year’s Roland Garros final loss by claiming a maiden Grand Slam trophy with a 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory over Sloane Stephens in Paris on Saturday.

On the very same court where she tasted defeat twice before in a French Open final, the top-ranked Halep fought back from a set and a break down to become just the second Romanian woman to win a Grand Slam title, following Virginia Ruzici’s triumph at Roland Garros in 1978.

Stephens, who was looking to add a second major trophy to the US Open crown she won last September, entered the contest with a stunning 6-0 record in career finals, while Halep was 0-3 in Slam finals, and had lost six of her last seven titles matches.

But Halep made sure there was no repeat of last year’s Paris final, and found her inner warrior to complete a memorable victory, on her favourite court, in her favourite tournament.

“First of all thank you guys, it was amazing. I felt your support. In the last game I felt I cannot breathe anymore. I tried not to repeat what happened last year. Honestly I cannot believe it,” Halep told the crowd on Court Philippe Chatrier.

This was never going to be a match with winners raining on either end. With both players being excellent movers, getting the ball past either woman is no mean feat. A combined four winners were struck in the first four games but it was Stephens who drew first blood, breaking the Halep serve for a 3-1 advantage.

She needed to save a break point while serving for the opening set, but in 41 minutes, Stephens found herself one set away from a second Grand Slam trophy.

The American broke early in the second to open up a 2-0 advantage but Halep stormed back, taking four games in a row – including a stretch of nine consecutive points – to make a contest out of the final.

The 10th-ranked Stephens halted the Romanian’s streak though, and they were soon back on serve at 4-all.

Halep showed real grit the following game, pulling off two huge points from 30/30 to hold for 5-4. She got a first set point with a deep down-the-line forehand winner on Stephens’ serve the next game and converted right away to force a deciding set.

Seven minutes into the third, Halep had already broken serve and she was soon up 3-0, as Stephens’ unforced error count soared to 35.

Halep broken again on what was arguably the point of the match, chasing down a drop shot, then finding the backhand smash to go up 4-0.

The world No. 1 put pressure on Stephens in game six but the American held for 1-5, forcing Halep to serve for the championship.

Halep got her first championship point with an overhead and a service winner sealed the deal for her.

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Rafael Nadal must be wary of nervous start against Dominic Thiem, says Carlos Moya

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King of Clay vs Prince of Clay: Nadal vs Thiem.

Rafael Nadal will be looking to avoid another slow start when he takes on Dominic Thiem in the Roland Garros final on Sunday, with the Spaniard’s coach Carlos Moya assuring that they expect a tougher version of the opponent they faced in last year’s semi-finals here in Paris.

Moya admits that nerves accounted for Nadal losing the opening set against Diego Schwartzman in the quarter-finals on Wednesday – before rain suspended play until the following day – as well as the tight opening set the world No. 1 contested against Juan Martin del Potro in Friday’s semis.

Del Potro did everything right against Nadal in that opener, except actually winning the set. The tall Argentine created six break point opportunities on the Mallorcan’s serve, and faced none on his own in the first nine games. But Nadal saved all six and broke in game 10 to take a one-set lead. It was cruise control for the 10-time Roland Garros champion from then on.

Nadal might not be able to get away with a nervy start against an opponent like Thiem, who is the only player to defeat him on clay in the build-up to Roland Garros over the past two seasons.

Moya says he’ll make sure they try to address that ahead of the final.

“He’s feeling a bit insecure maybe at the beginning and once he gets ahead in the match his confidence comes back. It’s something we’re aware of, it just happened in the last couple of matches, it’s not something that is happening very often with him. But yes it happened in the last two matches. But I guess the way he’s been playing the last three sets yesterday and the last two sets today is going to help give him confidence,” said Moya on Friday.

“We will talk about that [nervous starts]. We don’t have to forget that, we have to be aware of that, but also not give too much importance to that otherwise it can get in your head and it’s not helping.”

The plan is for Nadal to practice for one hour on Saturday morning and then rest all afternoon, Moya told Spanish radio station Cope.

“We’ll play Parchis [Spanish board game] and we’ll let Rafa win so that he’s happy before the final,” joked Moya. “I’ll pretend that I’m angry but it’s a tactic.”

Nadal is 6-3 head-to-head against Thiem, but they’ve split their two meetings this season. All of their previous encounters have come on clay and the Austrian No. 7 seed knows what he needs to do if he wants to end Nadal’s reign at the French Open.

But an 85-2 win-loss record like Nadal’s in Paris is not something easy to shake.

“It’s his court, he has the keys and he has to take advantage of that,” said Moya, referring to Nadal’s track record at Philippe Chatrier stadium.

“It’s not going to be easy but he’s facing Dominic, we know he’s the only player that beat him on clay the last couple of years. He’s a player that can be adapted more to the clay, it will be tough.”

Moya, the 1998 French Open champion, added: “Dominic plays very heavy topspin, very aggressive, good fitness condition, he’s probably the best clay-court player right now, along with Rafa. Although he can lose matches, but the way he plays suits clay courts very well.”

Mallorca’s finest: Nadal and Moya.

Patrick Mouratoglou, coach of Serena Williams and commentator for Eurosport, believes Thiem has the game to upset Nadal, but he’ll need to execute his game plan perfectly.

“Of course the chance is really small [for Thiem] but I think that DelPo kind of showed the way. I think he showed that at the start of the match Rafa was very nervous and you have to keep his head under the water, and that’s what DelPo couldn’t do today,” said Mouratoglou.

“You can’t afford to miss the occasions against Rafa. If you don’t miss the occasions you have a chance to keep his head under the water and then he is beatable. If not, you have the second and the third sets of today’s match, it speaks for itself. He starts to be more loose, he starts to go for it, and then he’s unplayable.

“Same against Schwartzman, where Rafa was saved a bit by the rain. For sure he is beatable, but you have to have the level, and Dominic has the level and you have to play the perfect match and the most important thing is you can’t miss the occasions that you have. If you do, it’s finished. And so that puts the bar really high and the pressure is at its maximum, that’s why he’s so tough to beat.”

Nadal has dropped just one set en route to the final while Thiem lost three – one against each of Stefanos Tsitsipas (round two), Matteo Berrettini (round three) and Kei Nishikori (round four).

Last year, Nadal completed a ‘Decima’ in Paris, lifting the trophy without dropping a set and losing just 35 games in total.

“It’s difficult to better the performance he had last year here,” Moya said of Nadal’s 2017 masterpiece.

“Well Monte Carlo this year he was very close to that level, but it’s hard to see that again.”

Thiem was one of Nadal’s victims during his 2017 French Open campaign, where the Austrian lost 6-3, 6-4, 6-0.

Thiem could only muster two games against Nadal in Monte Carlo last April but got his revenge a few weeks later with a straight-sets win in Madrid. It was a match where Nadal was completely outplayed and in which he later admitted to being nervous.

“I guess he [Thiem] is improving every year, he’s 24 right now, he’s at the age of improving, getting more experience, getting closer to his limits. We expect a better Thiem for sure than the one we met last year here,” said Moya.

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Rafael Nadal v Dominic Thiem: Stat attack ahead of Roland Garros final

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Nadal beat Thiem in straights in last year's Roland Garros semis.

The two best clay-court players over the past two years — Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem — will square off in Sunday’s Roland Garros final with the former going for an 11th title in Paris and 17th Grand Slam trophy and the latter chasing a maiden major success.

The Nadal-Thiem rivalry is one that has only existed on clay, with the Spaniard edging their head-to-head 6-3.

Last season, they faced off four times on the red dirt, with Thiem pulling off the upset in the Rome quarter-finals and Nadal triumphing in all other three encounters.

This year, it’s their third clash on the surface and they enter Sunday’s final tied at 1-1 in 2018.

If Nadal will ever pass the clay baton onto someone, Thiem is the obvious and likely heir-apparent.

Here’s a look at all the numbers ahead of the final…

1 – Nadal will retain his No. 1 ranking if he wins on Sunday. If he loses, Roger Federer will replace him at the top.

1 – Thiem is the only player to defeat Nadal on clay before Roland Garros in the past two seasons.

2 – titles won by Thiem this season — in Buenos Aires and Lyon.

2 – Thiem is bidding to become the second Austrian — man or woman — to win a Grand Slam title, behind Thomas Muster.

2 – victories for Thiem against a reigning world No. 1. He’ll try to get his third on Sunday.

3 – titles won by Nadal so far this season — in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome.

3 – Thiem is one of only three players — alongside Novak Djokovic and Gaston Gaudio — to have defeated Nadal on clay on three or more occasions.

7 – If Nadal wins the final, the last seven Grand Slam titles will have been won by players aged 30 or older. The last player aged younger than 30 to win a major title was Murray (aged 29 years 56 days) at Wimbledon 2016.

7 – Thiem will be ranked No. 7 in the world on Monday. His career-high is No. 4.

9 – Having defeated No. 2 seed Alexander Zverev in the quarter-finals, Thiem could become just the ninth man in the Open Era to beat both the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds at a Grand Slam – and just the fourth man to achieve the feat at Roland Garros.

10 – Thiem is on a 10-match winning streak heading into Sunday’s final, having won the title in Lyon before the start of Roland Garros.

11 – Nadal is bidding to become only the second player in history to win 11 singles titles at any Grand Slam after Margaret Court, who won the Australian Open singles title on 11 occasions.

11 – Nadal is bidding to become the first player in the Open Era to win 11 titles at three different tour-level events (has already won 11 times in Barcelona and Monte Carlo).

11 – Nadal is on an 11-match winning streak entering Sunday’s final, having picked up the trophy in Rome in his last event before Roland Garros.

16 – wins and seven losses for Nadal in Grand Slam finals throughout his career.

24 – Aged 24 years 280 days, Thiem is bidding to become the youngest Roland Garros champion since Nadal won the title here in 2010. Thiem is also bidding to become the youngest Grand Slam champion since Djokovic (24 years 252 days) won the 2012 Australian Open.

26 – match wins on clay for Thiem this season, a tour-leading tally. Nadal could match him if he wins on Sunday.

35 – victories for Thiem this season, the most won by any player on the men’s tour.

56 – Nadal owns a record 56 career clay-court titles.

109 – of Thiem’s 206 tour-level victories have come on clay.

110 – match wins and just 2 losses for Nadal in best-of-five matches on clay.

178 – km/hr is the average speed of Nadal’s first serve at Roland Garros this fortnight. The fastest serve he clocked this tournament was 200km/hr.

181 – km/hr is the average speed of Thiem’s first serve at Roland Garros this fortnight. The fastest serve he clocked this tournament was 224km/hr.

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