Surviving her 20th consecutive three-set match on clay, Maria Sharapova defeated Simona Halep 6-4, 6-7, 6-4 today to win her second French Open title. And while the Russian champion didn't find herself right on the edge of defeat the way she did in some of her earlier matches, she did have to fight hard to the very end to overcome Halep.
This was, by any standard, an outstanding match, and one very worthy of being a major final. For those (and I count myself as one) who were hoping the 4th-seeded Romanian would find a way to prevail, it was also somewhat of a disappointment. But here's hoping that those other Halep fans are like me, in that I'm always thrilled to see Sharapova win a title, even if she beats my favored player.
Sharapova was broken right off, in the first game of the first set, but then, in her first service game, Halep was just barely missing her first serves, a problem that would continue, on and off, throughout the match. She did hold, however, as did her opponent.
In the next game, Halep saved three break points with an angled volley, a forehand down the line, and a second serve body serve, demonstrating why she's considered one of the cleverest players on the tour. In the meantime, though, Sharapova was finding the angles, too, playing "Simona style," and the Russian broke when a Halep forehand went wild. The game, though only the fourth one of the match, was instructive in that it demonstrated how much tenacity each woman has, and how much clay court skill.
Sharapova held for 3-2 in the next game, though she double-faulted at deuce, and then she broke Halep. After Sharapova held again, Halep looked a bit lost, but then--out of nowwhere--she held at love. When Sharapova served for the set, she was broken on the second break point. Had things turned around? At 4-5, Halep did the quick 1-2 with a big serve to save a break point, but then she was broken on the second break point when another forehand shot went flying outside the court.
That gave Sharapova the first set.
Sharapova held to begin the next set, then she broke Halep. At that point, however--realizing what could happen very soon--Simona Halep found new life. She broke Sharapova and then held at 15. Still, however, the Romanian struggled with her second serves.
In the next game, Sharapova hit three double faults--and held. In the next game, I remember thinking "Where have Simona's angles gone?" At that moment, she found a wicked one and held for 3-all. Sharapova then went up 40-0, but barely held, after which Halep also held.
What happened next is the stuff of YouTube, and will hopefully be on YouTube for all to see. With Sharapova facing a break point, the two women engaged in one of those rallies that demonstrates what can happen if you just knock yourself out to make one more shot. Both of them had to be exhausted at the end, but it was Halep who made the one more crucial shot and got the break.
The Romanian then went down a break point, and was broken when a "missed" return from Sharapova hit the net cord and dribbled over. The drama continued when Sharapova went down 0-40, then, eventually, saved a break point with an ace, saved another one with a huge serve, and then was broken, anyway. So had it turned around this time?
Not really. Halep was quickly broken when she served for the set. The tiebreak was when it did turn around. Down 3-5, Halep put the tiebreak back on serve, then created one of her extreme angles to make it 5-all. She won her next service point, then broke Sharapova to win the second set 7-6.
At the end of the set, Sharapova took a bathroom break. She was gone for so long that it appeared she might have gone to Belgium for the break. Finally, she appeared, wearing fresh clothes, on the court.
Halep was in no hurry to serve (Sharapova was given the official Nadal "no time limit" treatment throughout most of the match, by the way, and one can only imagine what might have come down had Eva Asderaki been sitting in the umpire's chair), and took a moment to kick the clay from her shoes and to signal to her opponent that she needed a moment.
She was broken. In her first service game of the set, Sharapova double-faulted twice. She finally got a time violation warning. And then she, too, was broken. Then each woman held, though Sharapova had to save two break points. Halep saved two break points, too, but was broken, anyway.
Sharapova then held at love, then Halep held. Halep's patience was really on display, as she deftly forced a Sharapova error with a slice backhand, and then broke when the Russian tried to go for a wide second serve ace. It was 4-all.
And then it happened: Halep was broken at love. Serving for the match, Sharapova didn't mess around this time; she held at love. after over three hours of beautiful, often grueling tennis, the 2012 champion became the champion again. The great Chris Evert presented Sharapova with her trophy, and both women gave memorable speeches.
What a match! We don't always get really good finals, but this one was extremely well-played and thrilling.
I think that Halep performed very, very well in her first big final, and I look forward to seeing her in more big finals. As for Sharapova: She had to fight like crazy from the round of 16 on, and though she had nothing to prove in the fighting department, she did show, yet again, that she's both physically and mentally fit for the battle, no matter how tough it is or how long it goes on.