After a year in which she suffered a gut-wrenching Roland Garros final defeat, rose to No. 1 in the world, and missed another shot at claiming a maiden Grand Slam trophy, Simona Halep says not much has changed for her during that time – except one thing.
“Maybe I am smiling more,” the affable Romanian told reporters in Paris on Friday, ahead of her final against American No. 10 seed Sloane Stephens.
Halep, who is gunning for a first major title in her fourth appearance in a Grand Slam championship match, has a shot at redemption on Saturday.
Last season, she blew a 6-4, 3-0 lead against an unseeded Jelena Ostapenko in the French Open final and walked away as the runner-up. That defeat also denied her the chance to become the first Romanian woman to hold the No. 1 ranking. Halep rose to the summit anyway at the end of the season and has been at the top for a total of 31 weeks so far.
Entering a second consecutive Roland Garros final, ranked No. 1 in the world, on Friday Halep did the same thing she did the day before last year’s title match. She sat courtside to watch a men’s semi-final on Court Philippe Chatrier.
— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) June 8, 2018
Instead of Andy Murray against Stan Wawrinka last year, it was Rafael Nadal against Juan Martin del Potro that grabbed Halep’s attention on Friday. The Romanian is above all a tennis fan who loves the sport.
“Well, I think is the same pleasure, the same happiness that I am in this position again,” she said on Friday of making a third Roland Garros final. “It’s a very special moment. And to be able to play two finals in a row at this tournament means a lot for me. It’s my favourite Grand Slam. I feel like home here. It’s nice to face another big challenge.”
Halep’s opponent on Saturday is the reigning US Open champion. Stephens had been out of action from August 2016 to June 2017 with a foot injury before she enjoyed the most stunning comebacks in all of sport. In her third tournament back, she reached the semis in Toronto. In her fourth, she made semis in Cincinnati. In her fifth, she won the US Open.
“It was really amazing what she did last year without playing, like, nine months or 11 months. She came and after two tournaments she won a Grand Slam. That’s pretty amazing. I know she’s a great player. She’s powerful,” Halep said of Stephens, who trails the Romanian 2-5 head-to-head overall and 0-2 on clay.
Halep maintains that her desire for a first Slam title is big. But she also insists that a loss on Saturday will not be a tragedy. The 26-year-old says she’ll treat today’s final like any other match. That’s easier said than done of course. But maybe repeating it often can help her manifest that into reality.
“So I lost three times until now and no one died, so it will be okay,” Halep said with a smile after her semi-final victory over Garbine Muguruza on Thursday.
“But I will be, I think, more confident, because I have a lot of experience. But in tennis, you never know, so I will stay chill.”
While there are layers of complexity when it comes to Halep’s Grand Slam saga, it feels like the complete opposite for Stephens, who is 6-0 in career finals, and has looked incredibly solid this fortnight.
“Like I keep saying, it’s another great opportunity being in a final of a Slam, so just got go out and compete. Really nothing more, nothing less to it,” Stephens said on Friday.
Stephens took out three seeds in a row en route to the final – No. 25 Anett Kontaveit, No. 14 Daria Kasatkina, and her good friend and fellow American No. 13 seed Madison Keys most recently in the semi-finals.
Keys also fell to Stephens in the US Open final last September.
“I think Sloane has always had the ability to win slams. She’s gone deep in Slams before,” said Keys on Thursday.
“I think being away from the sport, she realised how much she loved it, and we saw that last summer when she came out and she was playing unbelievable.
“So I think she remembered how much she loves playing tennis, but more than that, I think then she started doing well and she won the US Open. When that starts happening, I think it’s a lot easier to get out there and try to do it again.”
In a way, the pressure should be far more on Halep’s shoulders as looks to avoid losing a fourth Slam final. But Halep doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t feel pressure,” insists the world No. 1.
“I feel that it’s a big challenge for me. It’s a big chance to win my dream tournament. But this doesn’t mean it’s going to happen or something like that. I have just to play like I did yesterday (against Muguruza). It’s a normal match I played against these opponents.
“So we will see what is going to happen tomorrow, but I just want to be smiling on court.”
Halep, who retained her world No. 1 ranking by advancing to the championship match, lost in last year’s French Open final to the then unseeded Jelena Ostapenko in three sets.
Stephens is into her second final in the last three Slams and owns a perfect 6-0 record in career finals.
The American defeated her compatriot Madison Keys in Thursday’s semi-finals, while Halep overcame Spanish 2016 champion Garbine Muguruza.
Here’s a deep dive into all the stats surrounding this final match-up.
0 – Halep is 0-3 in Grand Slam finals so far in her career.
1 – Only one of Stephens’ six titles has come on clay, in Charleston in 2016.
2 – Halep has won the two encounters she has had with Stephens on clay.
2 – Halep is attempting to become the second Romanian woman to win a Grand Slam title, following Virginia Ruzici’s triumph at Roland Garros in 1978.
4 – Halep has won her last four meetings against Stephens.
4 – Stephens will make her rankings top-five debut, at No.4, having advanced to the final. The last American to hold a top-five ranking other than Venus or Serena Williams was Lindsay Davenport in April 2006.
6 – of Halep’s 16 titles have come on clay.
6 – wins and 0 losses for Stephens in career finals.
8 – By reaching the final, Halep has moved into eighth place on the women’s all-time list of highest career earnings. She’ll be just shy of $25m.
9 – Stephens is the ninth American woman in the Open Era to contest a Roland Garros final. She’s the first American not named Williams since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to feature in a French Open final.
16 – wins and 14 losses for Halep in career finals. She’s lost six of her last seven.
28 – US Open champion Stephens is looking to become the 28th woman in the Open Era to win multiple Grand Slam titles.
32 – Halep is looking to win a major on her 32nd Grand Slam appearance. If she wins today, only seven women will have taken longer to win their first major trophy.
49 – The average ranking of Halep’s opponents en route to the final this fortnight is 49.
58 – The average ranking of Stephens’ opponents en route to the final this fortnight is 58.
212 – Stephens was ranked 212 this time last year, as didn’t play the French Open because she was out with a foot injury. She entered Roland Garros this fortnight ranked No. 10.
Dominic Thiem probably didn’t expect to take on world No. 72 Marco Cecchinato in the semi-finals of Roland Garros when he initially saw his draw.
But the Italian, who had never won a Grand Slam main draw match prior to this fortnight, has shocked the tennis world by posting five victories in Paris, including one over Novak Djokovic (arguably the match of the tournament so far).
Thiem eased past an ailing Alexander Zverev in the quarter-finals on Tuesday while Cecchinato stunned David Goffin and Djokovic in back-to-back four-setters to hit a new career milestone.
A maiden Grand Slam final awaits the winner of the clash between Thiem and Cecchinato on Friday at the French Open.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
It’s hard to get enthusiastic about what would have been an incredible dark horse story for Cecchinato due to the fact that he was found guilty of match-fixing in 2016 but then later got acquitted due to a technicality during his appeal. More can be found on this here.
Cecchinato has refused to discuss this topic throughout these two weeks in Paris. And while his wins at this tournament — especially the one against Djokovic — and in Budapest, where he captured his maiden ATP title as a lucky loser, are admirable, one cannot ignore the dark cloud of serious match-fixing allegations hovering over him.
This is Thiem’s third consecutive semi-final appearance at Roland Garros and the odds are stacked in his favour to make a first Grand Slam final. The No. 7 seed is looking to become just the second Austrian player — man or woman — to make a major final, following Thomas Muster.
NUMBERS FAVOUR DOMINIC
Thiem has not lost a clay court match to a player ranked as low as No. 72 Cecchinato since falling to No. 421 Jurgen Melzer in the second round at 2016 Kitzbuhel.
He has never lost a player ranked as low as Cecchinato at Roland Garros – the lowest-ranked player to defeat him here is No. 23 Pablo Cuevas in the second round in 2015.
Thiem enters this semi-final carrying a nine-match winning streak, having claimed the title in Lyon in the week prior to the French Open.
WHAT THE PLAYERS SAID
Thiem on how different he feels this year compared to the last two times he made the semis here:
“I think this year I’m physically and mentally fresher than I have been the last two years. I know how to handle a Grand Slam now, how to handle — to get that deep in such a tournament, and I think everything gets better with experience.”
Thiem on his semi-final opponent:
“Cecchinato is full of confidence, probably the most confident player out there right now. He never won a match at a Slam, and now he’s in the semi-finals. So everything is going easy for him. He can play completely free.”
Cecchinato on his surprise run to the last-four:
“I think it’s changed the life. So after Roland Garros, I need some rest and to realize the moment, and we will see my life.”