A major breakthrough for Halep?

Thursday’s matches were over, and Simona Halep had already left Roland Garros Stadium after reaching yet another Grand Slam final, this one to be played against Sloane Stephens.

 

But on the big video wall in the Place des Mousquetaires, there was still high-stakes tennis on display: a special screening of Julien Faraut’s documentary, John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, which focuses on McEnroe’s virtuoso 1984 season that included one discordant note.

 

That was his loss in the French Open final to Ivan Lendl, when he squandered a two-set lead. McEnroe, now 59, says the collapse still haunts him, troubling his sleep from time to time, making him wonder what might have changed in his life if he had just closed out Lendl.

 

One of the final shots of the film is McEnroe sitting on his chair after the match, his face buried in his hands as the seconds tick by.

 

For all his skills and sense of destiny, McEnroe never did win the French Open singles title. Neither did Martina Hingis, despite a game and tactical mind-set ideally suited to the clay surface. Strange things happen. There are no guarantees.

 

Halep, a sensitive soul who has sacrificed plenty for her craft, surely grasps this by now. Tennis at this level is not about paying dues and reaping the rewards.

 

It is about seizing the opportunity before a fresh pain knocks you out of action or before a fresh face arrives with the insouciance and ability to shake up the hierarchy to your detriment.

 

Best not to wait too long to capitalise, and Halep, the No 1 seed, now has another precious chance to do so in Paris on a Saturday.

 

She ensured that she will retain that No 1 ranking next week by defeating Garbiñe Muguruza, 6-1, 6-4, on Thursday in a high-intensity semifinal full of loud wails of effort and ferocious baseline exchanges.

At times, it seemed as much a test of will as of tennis, and Muguruza, the No 3 seed and 2016 French Open champion who would have displaced Halep at No 1 with a victory, was the one who finally cracked.

 

But it is not the No 1 ranking that truly interests Halep. She is 0-3 in Grand Slam finals, 0-2 in French Open finals. She has lost each in three tight sets: to Maria Sharapova in the 2014 French Open final, to the unseeded Jelena Ostapenko in last year’s French Open final and to Caroline Wozniacki in this year’s Australian Open final.

 

None were more painful than her slow fade last year against Ostapenko, one of those insouciant youngsters. Halep led by 6-4, 3-0, within a point of going up by 4-0, before Ostapenko rallied to win. Halep reeled for weeks.

 

She regathered herself and rose again only to lose to Wozniacki in January on a steamy Australian summer evening: a duel so gruelling that Halep required hospitalisation after the match for severe dehydration.

 

But here she and her coach, Darren Cahill, are again, and if the crowd reaction on Thursday was an indication, she will not lack for support against Stephens on Saturday.

 

Halep, already a superstar in Romania, has become a genuine sentimental favourite beyond her borders. If she is to maximise her chances, she should understand that and feed off it rather than block it out.

 

“Of course it’s a big opportunity,” she said after beating Muguruza. “I lost three times until now, and no one died, so it will be OK.

 

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.” When the line of questioning continued — she was asked what she had learned from those three losses — a smile flitted across her face.

 

“Can we change the subject? Let’s talk outside,” she asked, turning her gaze toward the window of the interview room. “It’s beautiful weather.”

 

It was sunny indeed on Thursday, but given Stephens’s skill set and level of play in Paris, it is hard to imagine there will not be some storms to weather in the final.

 

Halep holds a 5-2 record against Stephens and has won their last four matches in straight sets. But Stephens has clicked into a much higher gear since they last played, in the semifinals in Cincinnati last year.

 

Stephens went on to win her first Grand Slam title at the 2017 United States Open, when she was ranked just 83rd and still early in her stunning comeback from foot surgery.

 

Stephens then went straight into a slump, losing nine straight matches while dealing with knee tendinitis and other issues. “I think life came at me fast after the US Open,” Stephens said.

 

But she is back in control after winning the Miami Open in March and now reaching her first French Open final. Come Monday, win or lose against Halep, she will for the first time be the top-ranked American woman, at No 4 in the world.

 

 


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