Saturday, June 9, 2018
I didn't think, in my lifetime (or maybe anyone's) I would ever see people travel around the world to cheer loudly for a female athlete, but that's exactly what the Romanians have done for Simona Halep since she caught up with all the potential some of us saw in her many years ago. Today, Halep gave her fans something about which to cheer loudly: On her third try, she won the French Open, defeating 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.
Of course, it went three sets--this is Simona. In 2012, she played a dazzling three-set final against Maria Sharapova, who later said it was the toughest final she had ever played. In 2017, Halep was up 3-1 in the third set against interloper Alona Ostapenko, who frolicked through the draw as though she were practicing one of her wilder ballroom dances. Ostapenko won that match, leaving Halep with two almost-wins at Roland Garros.
To make matters even more tense, Halep lost a three-set final at this year's Australian Open when she lost to Caroline Wozniacki. Again, Halep was, I suppose, what people call "always a bridesmaid, never a bride," but--since I find that phrase somewhat offensive--I'll use Fran Lebowitz's version--"always a godmother, never a god."
But not now. The speedy, agile, frequently dazzling shot-maker from Romania, who also happens to be the world's number 1 player, has won La Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen. Halep, a fine athlete with a strategic mindset, has struggled for years with her head. A perfectionist who is very hard on herself, Halep has had trouble "moving on" if a point or a game goes badly. This makes her especially vulnerable to players like Ostapenko and Stephens, who have are especially adept at letting things go and getting on to the next moment, or game, or set.
But Halep has worked on this issue, just as she has worked on her fitness and her groundstrokes. And today, that work paid off. The fluid, powerful Stephens--who does just about everything very well--dominated Halep in the first set, using her easy power. Stephens was seeing and picking up the ball so well, it appeared sometimes that she had cloned herself and there were Sloanes all over the court.
After winning the first set 6-3, Stephens broke Halep immediately in the second set. Halep then went on a tear, winning nine consecutive points and breaking a somewhat tired-looking Stephens. But then, things got even, and at 4-all, 30-all, the tension was palpable. Halep did break, though, and then stormed through the third set like the woman on a mission that she obviously was.
I really liked the semifinal draw, and would have been happy to see Sloane Stephens, Garbine Muguruza or Madison Keys hold the trophy. But it was especially touching and gratifying to see the hard-working, stylistic Halep overcome her cerebral demons and win a major. I also especially like her game.
Not since the great Amelie Mauresmo finally won her first major in 2006 have I felt such relief on behalf of a player. On that January day, I went out and bought a bottle of champagne (I'm talking about real champagne, from France). I can't think of an equivalent thing to do now, but I join many others (including Simona's peers on the tour) in admiring her for pushing herself so hard for so long to achieve the distinction of winning a major--my favorite major, at that. And here's hoping that this is just the first one. Si-mo-na!