PARIS – There can be no remnants of doubt, or regret for previous opportunities lost, when a childhood dream finally comes true.
There can be only joy.
And so, a joyful Simona Halep held the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen aloft for the first time, a first-time Grand Slam champion as she won the French Open Saturday.
Her smile illuminated Court Philippe-Chatrier, as she overcame a set-and-a-break deficit to triumph over No. 10 seed Sloane Stephens, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.
“It’s a special moment. I was dreaming for this moment since actually I started to play tennis. It’s my favorite Grand Slam. I always said that if I’m going to win one, I want it to be here,” Halep said.
When Halep was a set and a break down in the second set, she thought to herself, “It’s lost.”
Another chance gone, her fourth in a major final and third in Paris, to break the Grand Slam ice. So the Romanian told herself to just enjoy the moment.
And then the switch flipped
Until then, Stephens was controlling many of the points. She was breaking them open with winners and defending beautifully whenever she needed to. And then, Halep changed the game.
She hit closer to the lines. She hit harder. And she came forward to hit a few swing volleys.
And after she put away the second set, she kept it up.
It was then that all the hard work in the first set paid off.
Stephens looked to be dancing on top of the clay, as she always does when she’s playing her best tennis.
But if it seemed effortless, the reality was that she had to work hard, run hard, to take that first set.
And halfway through that second set, as Halep’s legs clearly had several more kilometers in then, Stephens’s level dropped. Her feet no longer danced. She appeared to be starting to feel it physically.
“She raised her game, raised her level. Not much you can really do about that. I competed the best I could, and the better player won the match today,” Stephens said. “Not very many players ever get to a Grand Slam final. So the fact that I have won one and been in another final in such a short period of time, I’m very optimistic and very pleased with myself. I’m not satisfied, but I am proud of myself.”
By the time Halep was two breaks ahead in the third set, she may well have been past any negative thoughts from a year ago, on the same court.
On that June day 12 months ago, the Romanian led unseeded 20-year-old Latvian Jelena Ostapenko by a set and a break. But Halep played not to win, but hoping that the inexperienced Ostapenko would lose.
And Ostapenko wouldn’t lose.
“When I started to win games, I said that last year happened to me, same thing, I was set and a break up and I lost the match. So I said there is a chance to come back and win it,” Halep said. “So I believed in that, and my game was more relaxed. I could make more things on court, and that’s why I could win.”
Turning a difficult history around
Last year, Halep slept poorly before the match against Ostapenko. This year, she slept well.
Still, the timelines of last year’s final and this year’s final were always in the forefront of her mind.
With the help of a sports psychologist, Halep has come to terms with the fact that her mind may always be her greatest foe when it comes to aspiring to her greatest triumphs.
The secret may have been not to try to eliminate what cannot be erased, but to find ways of accepting it, embracing it somehow, and overcoming it that way.
And all that hard work on her “best” weakness paid off on Saturday.
The point at 3-0 in the third set, a break point to put a double break in the bank, was the clincher. Halep’s legs got her to the drop shot, a backhand smash earned her the break.
“I remember last year – I had last year and this year in my mind all match – when, at 3-3, I think, in the third set, she hit the net and the ball was going, like, five meters out and came back to my court. So I remember that,” Halep said. “I said, if I did this point, so has to be mine this match. I was confident after that.”
Different words from Coach Cahill
Coach Darren Cahill, the Aussie whose stern talk to his charge during the Miami Open last year during a coaching consult – and short-lived resignation – seems to have helped put Halep on the champion’s road, had the same advice for Halep before her first three major finals.
He told her that getting to the final was a big deal, and to just enjoy it.
This time, Cahill had different words.
“You’re going to take it. You’re going to go on court and just thinking you have to take it, not waiting for the opponent to give it to you,” Halep said. “So he gave me confidence, and he put a little bit pressure on myself that I have to go there and win it. So maybe that’s why I won it, and it worked.”
It takes a top-shelf coach to understand that, for this fourth final, a little pressure was something that would work for Halep this time, not against her.
And if she didn’t take his advice in the first set, the 26-year-old put it resolutely into action to catch up – and then to cross the finish line.
For awhile now, Halep had been part of an accomplished but oft-maligned club, that of players who have been ranked No. 1 without winning a Grand Slam.
Amélie Mauresmo of France was in that club, before she finally got on the board. Neither Dinara Safina nor Jelena Jankovic ever won one.
Caroline Wozniacki happily ripped off that scarlet “S” (for Slamless) when she defeated Halep to win the Australian Open in January.
And now, Halep has done it as well. Better still, she did it while ranked No. 1.
Nice, round numbers make it fate
The title comes exactly 40 years after her countrywoman Virginia Ruzici won Roland Garros, at age 23.
Ruzici, now a Paris resident, is Halep’s manager.
The title also comes exactly 10 years after Halep won the junior French Open girls’ singles title in 2008, and became the No. 1-ranked junior in the world.
She had, with one exception, been mostly a third-round loser at the junior Slams, although she had won numerous lower-grade titles.
But Halep lost just one set in taking that 2008 title, to countrywoman Elena Bogdan in the final. And then, as French Open junior champion and world No. 1 junior, she ended her junior career.
This victory in Paris won’t end her pro career. In fact, it may well be a new beginning.
For there will no longer be any doubt – whether external, or in the recesses of Halep’s mind – that she’s good enough to win a Grand Slam title.
Now, she’s done it.
“I kissed (the trophy) many times to be sure that it’s going to stay in my heart forever. It’s heavy, it’s beautiful. And always when I was seeing the pictures with it, I dreamed to have it, to touch it,” Halep said. “And now it’s a special moment and I’m really happy that it’s mine.”
(Screenshots from FranceTV Sport)