Three years ago, Simona Halep was a 22-year-old making her first appearance in a Grand Slam final against Maria Sharapova at Roland Garros. She lost in three sets.
On Saturday, Halep is no longer a rookie. She’s the experienced favourite, taking on 20-year-old first-time major finalist Jelena Ostapenko in the French Open title match.
Victory on Saturday would give Halep not just a maiden Slam trophy, but also the No1 spot. She would become the first ever Romanian woman to top the world rankings and just the second to claim a major behind her manager, Virginia Ruzici who won Roland Garros in 1978.
The 25-year-old’s popularity in Romania is unrivaled. It is both a blessing and a curse as she carries the weight of expectation on her shoulders everywhere she goes.
Her legions of fans show up at every tournament; their ‘SI-MO-NA’ chants echoing through the world’s biggest stadiums.
She may have struggled with pressure in the past, but this version of Halep is embracing it and thriving under it.
“Of course I’m nervous, but it’s nice feeling,” she told reporters in Paris on Friday.
“Today I’m just living the day, and we will see what is going to be happen tomorrow. I’m not thinking about anything else.
Three years ago it was, like, 50 people around me, my family, friends, everyone. So now I will stay with my team, same routine, same things, and I just want to get ready for tomorrow. I’m not thinking that is the final. I’m thinking just that it’s a normal match. But of course, I take the pressure because I like it.”
She finished her pre-final media commitments then went out to sit in the Court Philippe Chatrier stands to watch part of the semi-final between Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka. Ahead of the biggest match of her career so far, Halep is hanging out at the tennis and treating Friday like any other day.
“Of course, this match is really important, and I will not hide the heaviness that it has,” she admits. “Of course it’s going to be a great thing if I can win tomorrow. But I would like not to think too much, because put more pressure.
“I say always that I play well with the pressure, but now I don’t need it. I just take it like a big day, a big match. And definitely I’m ready for it, because I won many matches until now.
“So I have also the mentality to play this final. We will see tomorrow, but I will give my best to make happy more people at home…
“Since Virginia, no one won a Grand Slam (in Romania). So it’s going to be a big thing if I will do tomorrow.”
Halep will not have to make too many adjustments to the game plan she had against her previous opponent Karolina Pliskova, who is a big-hitter like Ostapenko.
But Ostapenko has youth and abandon on her side. She’s the first ever Latvian to reach a Grand Slam final and has blasted through the draw hitting a whopping 245 winners in six matches. That’s an average of 40.8 winners per match.
She’s the youngest woman to reach a Grand Slam final since Caroline Wozniacki was runner-up at the 2009 US Open.
Ostapenko, a former Wimbledon junior champion, had never won a main draw match at Roland Garros prior to this fortnight. The extent of her experience at the French Open is a total of seven matches.
She also has history on the line as she would be the first Latvian to win a major.
But none of that has weighed down on the fiery youngster so far.
“It’s really nice. Yesterday a lot of calls from Latvia, even the president of the country called. So was really nice the attention from my country,” she said cheerfully on Friday.
“He actually called my mom. So that’s what she told me. I mean, because nobody knows my phone.”
Ostapenko has been coached by her mother Jelena Jakovleva all her life but she started working with former world No14 Anabel Medina Garrigues at the beginning of this clay season in April.
The Spaniard, who is still a doubles player, did not change Ostapenko’s game but she has been helping her harness that sheer power and make better decisions on the court.
Television stats have shown that Ostapenko’s average forehand speed is faster than Murray’s and it is that power that has carried her through the draw these two weeks.
“Since I probably started to play tennis, I had a possibility to play aggressive,” said the Latvian world No47. “So I was always trying to play aggressive and that’s my game style. But yesterday when I found out that my forehand was faster (than Murray), I was a little bit surprised.”
She’s surprised herself, and the world, with her run on clay – her least favourite surface – at Roland Garros, and she feels she’s got nothing to lose at this point.
“I’m already in the finals so I’m going to go out there and enjoy the match,” says Ostapenko.
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“I’m not finished,” said Simona Halep, interrupting a reporter mid-question.
He was trying to ask her how proud she was of herself this tournament, irrespective of the result of Saturday’s final. For Halep, the goal is very clear, and it has everything to do with Saturday’s final so you can’t just ask her to ignore it for a second to answer a question.
Halep’s press conference after she beat world No3 Karolina Pliskova in three sets on Thursday can be summarised in one sentence. The Romanian is in it to win it.
There were these implicit messages in her answers that all lead to the same conclusion: She won’t be celebrating this semi-final win because her tournament isn’t over and she wants to finish the job this time, unlike her near-miss against Maria Sharapova in the 2014 Roland Garros final.
“What I can say is about the ankle, the only one I think. I don’t know how it stays okay there. Anyway, I feel during the match the pain, but I don’t care. I’m not thinking about that,” said Halep
“But to be in the final, it’s just a happiness thing. I just feel happy. Proud, I can say, because I think the mental part helped me a lot this tournament in all the matches. So I’m good. I’m happy. I just want to remain focused.”
She takes on 20-year-old Latvian Jelena Ostapenko, who only made it to her first Grand Slam third round last January in Australia and now finds herself in the final of the French Open after taking out No30 seed Timea Bacsinszky in three sets.
Halep enters this contest as the heavy favourite, having dominated most of this clay season. She will also be playing for the No1 ranking. If she wins, she overtakes Angelique Kerber at the top of the charts.
Her vanquished opponent on Thursday, Pliskova, is backing her all the way to take home a first Grand Slam trophy.
“No doubt that Ostapenko she’s having a good run here, and she’s dangerous player for everybody, I think, but I would bet everything I have on Simona,” said a deadpan Pliskova.
Halep did everything she could to appear cheerful and relaxed yet somehow at the same time focused and business-like.
“I’m of course happy, but I’m not that excited. I’m looking forward, actually, to play it (the final). I’m okay. I’m feeling good,” said the No3 seed.
She has been in similar situations several times before, having made deep runs in multiple majors, and knows what to do at this point.
“I learned many things during the years, not just after that final (in Roland Garros 2014). Also semi-finals in Wimbledon (2014). Then US Open against Pennetta (2015) before that match,” said Halep.
“So I know how to be. I don’t change anything. It’s just natural coming. Nothing special. It’s of course a big match. It’s a big challenge, as well. I will play a very young player. There is nothing to lose. I have just a big chance to get to things. I will go there and give my everything, for sure.”
Halep’s determination has been becoming more and more evident with every match this fortnight and it’s remarkable how far she’s come especially considering she came to Paris with a serious ankle injury she had picked up in the final in Rome. She wasn’t sure she was going to compete at Roland Garros.
“I was scared, because they told me that it’s broken. I had no idea what does it mean,” she explained. “But I refused to accept that I cannot play, so I think I recovered faster mentally because of the positive thinking, and I really wanted to be here. So didn’t matter what the scan showed.”
She’s not shying away from the task at hand and knows there will be a lot on the line on Saturday.
“I will play for two things: My first Grand Slam and No1 in the world. It’s a big challenge, a big chance. I think I have the game. I have the mentality to win, but it’s gonna be tough,” she said.
I asked Halep at the end of the press conference if she’s ever spoken to her manager and fellow Romanian, Virginia Ruzici, about her experience winning Roland Garros in 1978.
This time, Halep cracks a joke.
“I just want to win it to beat her,” she says with a laugh.
We’ll find out soon enough if she can pull it off.
Meanwhile, Bacsinszky gave yet another top-notch press conference after her loss to Ostapenko and was asked to use three words to describe her Roland Garros 2017 experience. Anyone who knows the Swiss would know that asking her to say anything in just three words is a tall order.
“Just three? It’s a nightmare. I cannot. You have time? The first word which is coming, to be ‘privileged’,” she began.
“It’s a very strong word for me. ‘Limitless’, like I’m trying every day. I have the last word – but I’m thinking right now of doing the same tattoo as Stan. So I think he did, as well, two semi-finals before winning a Slam, right? I’m on the good way.
“No. And the last is ‘true love’. True love for Paris, for this tournament, for the French Open, for the clay, for the atmosphere, for the people here, yeah, many things.”
“I don’t think we can ever see another guy like this. I always ask where he stop his spaceship around, like Roger. It’s nice you see these guys playing together. I’m sure that one make the other been much better that they normally will do without these kind of competition.”
— Guga Kuerten, like us, thinks Rafael Nadal is from another planet.
Q. Could you tell us what was going on in your head when you’re down two match points? What did you tell each other? Rohan Bopanna: We were down?
Q. 9-7. Rohan Bopanna: I’m just joking.
— Mixed doubles champion Bopanna during his post-victory press conference.
“What’s the point difference that we have? Ah, only one? Ah, bad luck. Okay. It’s a tough one. I cry now or later?”
— Bacsinszky when she realised she had won just one less point than her opponent Jelena Ostapenko in their semi-final on Thursday.
“I would, like, compare that to maybe Sharapova on some ways because before, at the beginning of her career, she was more saying, ‘Oh, I feel like Bambi on the ice’ or something like that. And Ostapenko said probably the same last year.”
— Bacsinszky on Ostapenko’s improved movement.
“I’m not ashamed to say that she played better. She was braver. She had more courage. She was more successful.”
— Bacsinszky really is a quote machine.
“I think I will beat 99 per cent of the girls with this tennis that I was playing today, so just unlucky that it was Simona today there.”
— Karolina Pliskova’s brutal honesty is refreshing.
“I was almost celebrating after the first round what I won. So I take those 700 points right now.”
— Pliskova sure did surprise herself by making the semi-finals
1 – Ostapenko is the first ever Latvian – man or woman – to reach a Grand Slam final.
1 – Halep is one win away from the world No1 ranking and would be the first Romanian woman to ever reach the top spot if she does.
2 – Halep is trying to become just the second Romanian woman to win a Grand Slam.
46 – The Roland Garros champion will be the 46th different Grand Slam winner in the Open Era.
50 – winners and 45 unforced errors for Ostapenko against Bacsinszky in the semis.
245 – winners for Ostapenko this fortnight through six matches. She’s averaging 40.8 winners per match.
Hugh Grant, who once attended a first round match in Bastad, was in the stands on Thursday for the Ostapenko-Bacsinszky semi-final. Class!
The mother of all clay-court showdowns will take place on Court Philippe Chatrier on Friday when Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem – the two players with the most clay wins this season (both have 22) – face off in the Roland Garros semi-finals.
All six of their previous meetings have come on clay and this will be their fourth meeting in the last six weeks. Nadal beat Thiem in the Barcelona and Madrid finals before the 23-year-old Austrian got his revenge in the Rome quarter-finals.
Neither player has dropped a set this fortnight and the match is being described as a virtual final.
Thiem took out Novak Djokovic in straight sets on Wednesday to reach his second consecutive French Open semi-final while Nadal made it through via a Pablo Carreno Busta retirement.
Centre Court at Roland Garros is being described as a high-bouncing clay court by many players and pundits which can actually bring out the best in both players’ games.
It feels like this entire clay swing has been building up to the very moment for Nadal and Thiem and it’s a shame it’s coming at the semi-final stage rather than the final of the French Open.
“Thiem is a tough player. I hope that I won’t lose. I won in Barcelona, Madrid, and I lost to him in Rome. We played three times with Dominic. We can have a look at the statistics. We can talk about statistics for hours, but what is important is to consider the match. So either you play well and you advance to the next round or you lose and you’re out. If I play well, I hope that I will be able to book my spot in the final. If I don’t play well, I will be out of the tournament.”
“First of all, it’s great for me to be in the semi-finals again, to defend that. And of course, I think on Friday is coming the toughest opponent ever here in Roland Garros. Gonna be the fourth match against him in, like, five or six weeks. Not really big secrets. Well, he’s again in his best shape. So gonna be the toughest match what you can imagine.”
“It’s a joke how tough it is to win a slam. Because obviously now I beat Novak. On Friday is Nadal. In the finals there is another top star. That’s why it’s a slam is because it’s such a tough achievement.”
2 – Thiem is bidding to become the second Austrian player – man or woman – in history to reach a Grand Slam final. 1995 Roland Garros champion Thomas Muster is the only Austrian player to reach the final at a major.
3 – Thiem is bidding to become just the third player ever – alongside Novak Djokovic and Gaston Gaudio – to defeat Nadal on clay on three or more occasions.
3 – of the four semi-finalists – Wawrinka, Thiem, Nadal – are yet to drop a set this fortnight. It’s the first time this has happened at a Grand Slam since the 1988 Australian Open, when Pat Cash, Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander achieved the feat. It’s the first time this has happened at Roland Garros in the Open Era.
3 – Nadal is bidding to become the third man in history to make 10 appearances in the final at one Grand Slam event after Bill Tilden (10 US Open finals) and Roger Federer (10 Wimbledon finals).
4 – This is the fourth consecutive tournament meeting between Thiem and Nadal.
5 – In five of the previous six meetings between Nadal and Thiem, the winner of their match has gone on to win the title.
7 – wins and 15 losses for Thiem against top-five opposition (6-6 on clay).
9 – wins and zero losses for Nadal in Roland Garros semi-finals.
21 – wins and three losses for Nadal in Grand Slam semi-finals. His last Slam semi-final loss came to Juan Martin del Potro in the 2009 US Open.
22 – Nadal has dropped just 22 games in reaching the semi-finals in Paris – the fewest games dropped into a Grand Slam semi-final in the Open Era where five best-of-five set matches have been played.
22 – tour-leading match wins on clay for both Thiem and Nadal.
22 – Nadal is looking to reach his 22nd Grand Slam final and take sole ownership of second place on the all-time list (behind Federer who has made 28) for most Grand Slam finals reached in the Open Era.
23 – years and 281 days, Thiem’s age. He is looking to become the youngest man to reach a Grand Slam final since Djokovic (23 years 253 days) and Murray (23 years 260 days) played each other in the final at the 2011 Australian Open. He would be the youngest man to reach the Roland Garros final since Nadal (22 years 5 days) in 2008.
29 – years and 105 days, the average age of the four men’s semi-finalists. It’s the second-highest at Roland Garros in the Open Era (behind 1968, when it was 33 years 224 days).
39 – games Thiem has dropped en route to the semis compared to 76 last year.