Things can come full circle for Simona Halep as she finds herself back in the Roland Garros final.
After a year in which she suffered a gut-wrenching Roland Garros final defeat, rose to No. 1 in the world, and missed another shot at claiming a maiden Grand Slam trophy, Simona Halep says not much has changed for her during that time – except one thing.
“Maybe I am smiling more,” the affable Romanian told reporters in Paris on Friday, ahead of her final against American No. 10 seed Sloane Stephens.
Halep, who is gunning for a first major title in her fourth appearance in a Grand Slam championship match, has a shot at redemption on Saturday.
Last season, she blew a 6-4, 3-0 lead against an unseeded Jelena Ostapenko in the French Open final and walked away as the runner-up. That defeat also denied her the chance to become the first Romanian woman to hold the No. 1 ranking. Halep rose to the summit anyway at the end of the season and has been at the top for a total of 31 weeks so far.
Entering a second consecutive Roland Garros final, ranked No. 1 in the world, on Friday Halep did the same thing she did the day before last year’s title match. She sat courtside to watch a men’s semi-final on Court Philippe Chatrier.
Instead of Andy Murray against Stan Wawrinka last year, it was Rafael Nadal against Juan Martin del Potro that grabbed Halep’s attention on Friday. The Romanian is above all a tennis fan who loves the sport.
“Well, I think is the same pleasure, the same happiness that I am in this position again,” she said on Friday of making a third Roland Garros final. “It’s a very special moment. And to be able to play two finals in a row at this tournament means a lot for me. It’s my favourite Grand Slam. I feel like home here. It’s nice to face another big challenge.”
Halep’s opponent on Saturday is the reigning US Open champion. Stephens had been out of action from August 2016 to June 2017 with a foot injury before she enjoyed the most stunning comebacks in all of sport. In her third tournament back, she reached the semis in Toronto. In her fourth, she made semis in Cincinnati. In her fifth, she won the US Open.
“It was really amazing what she did last year without playing, like, nine months or 11 months. She came and after two tournaments she won a Grand Slam. That’s pretty amazing. I know she’s a great player. She’s powerful,” Halep said of Stephens, who trails the Romanian 2-5 head-to-head overall and 0-2 on clay.
Halep maintains that her desire for a first Slam title is big. But she also insists that a loss on Saturday will not be a tragedy. The 26-year-old says she’ll treat today’s final like any other match. That’s easier said than done of course. But maybe repeating it often can help her manifest that into reality.
“So I lost three times until now and no one died, so it will be okay,” Halep said with a smile after her semi-final victory over Garbine Muguruza on Thursday.
“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.”
While there are layers of complexity when it comes to Halep’s Grand Slam saga, it feels like the complete opposite for Stephens, who is 6-0 in career finals, and has looked incredibly solid this fortnight.
“Like I keep saying, it’s another great opportunity being in a final of a Slam, so just got go out and compete. Really nothing more, nothing less to it,” Stephens said on Friday.
Stephens took out three seeds in a row en route to the final – No. 25 Anett Kontaveit, No. 14 Daria Kasatkina, and her good friend and fellow American No. 13 seed Madison Keys most recently in the semi-finals.
Keys also fell to Stephens in the US Open final last September.
“I think Sloane has always had the ability to win slams. She’s gone deep in Slams before,” said Keys on Thursday.
“I think being away from the sport, she realised how much she loved it, and we saw that last summer when she came out and she was playing unbelievable.
“So I think she remembered how much she loves playing tennis, but more than that, I think then she started doing well and she won the US Open. When that starts happening, I think it’s a lot easier to get out there and try to do it again.”
In a way, the pressure should be far more on Halep’s shoulders as looks to avoid losing a fourth Slam final. But Halep doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t feel pressure,” insists the world No. 1.
“I feel that it’s a big challenge for me. It’s a big chance to win my dream tournament. But this doesn’t mean it’s going to happen or something like that. I have just to play like I did yesterday (against Muguruza). It’s a normal match I played against these opponents.
“So we will see what is going to happen tomorrow, but I just want to be smiling on court.”