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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