Paris — Sloane Stephens enters Saturday’s French Open final against No. 1 Simona Halep with a 6-0 record in tournament title matches.
“I’m pretty calm on the court all the time, I’d say. I don’t get too up, too down,” Stephens said. “I think that it has helped me.”
Halep, meanwhile, is 0-3 with a Grand Slam trophy at stake.
“Hopefully,” Halep said, “tomorrow, I will be better than previous ones.”
Here’s something the women who meet for the championship at Roland Garros do have in common: They rarely seem to let a point end quickly. Halep, a 26-year-old Romanian, and the 10th-seeded Stephens, a 25-year-old American, are among the best there is right now at using instinct and speed to track down tough-to-reach shots and force opponents to hit another.
And that’s not to say they’re merely content to push balls back. Both have learned to pick the right spots to be aggressive and are quite capable of switching from retriever to attacker in a blink.
“They obviously both move really well. It’s going to be who can stay in the point the longest,” said Madison Keys, who lost to Stephens in the French Open semifinals Thursday and in the U.S. Open final last September.
“Both of them are similar in the sense that if you can get them off of the baseline, then you can open up the court,” Keys said. “I think if you try to go angles with them, you’re going to be the one that’s running – and not like it.”
That matchup could make for long, riveting exchanges. Neither finalist ever seems willing to concede she’s out of a point.
Or, as they’ve shown in this tournament, a match.
Stephens was two points from defeat in the third round against Camila Giorgi of Italy, before coming back to win 8-6 in the third set.
“There were a couple matches where she was probably like, ‘Oh, my God,’ right?” said Stephens’ coach, Kamau Murray. “And I think when you make it out of that, you build a little bit of confidence. But she did a great job of not getting overconfident.”
Halep began as poorly as could be, falling into a 5-0 hole in the first set of her first-round match against Alison Riske of the U.S., before coming back to win.
Halep dropped the opening set of her quarterfinal against two-time major champion Angelique Kerber. But Halep turned that one around, too, and pointed her right index finger at her temple afterward, as if to let the world know what allowed her to win that day.
“She deals much better with pressure. The fact that she became No. 1 has given her a different dimension, a different stature. She really deals with things better. Psychologically, she’s also much better. … And now she wants to win a Grand Slam. And now she says it,” said 1978 French Open champion Virginia Ruzici, who is Halep’s manager and the only woman from Romania to collect a major title. “Before, she didn’t dare say it. Now she says it: ‘I want to win a Grand Slam.’”
There certainly have been chances already.
Halep, 16-14 overall in tour finals, has lost twice at that stage at the French Open, to Maria Sharapova in 2014, then to Jelena Ostapenko after leading by a set and 3-0 in the second a year ago. Her third defeat with a major title on the line came against Caroline Wozniacki at the Australian Open in January.
“Well, for sure, I’m a little bit different because I have more experience. I’m more relaxed about this situation,” Halep said, sounding convinced of her words as they hung in the air, until she added this: “But you never know. Every match is different.”
She is 5-2 against Stephens, including winning their past four matches.
But Stephens has grown as a player thanks to two particularly trying stretches.
One was her 11-month absence with a foot injury; she had surgery in January 2017. The other was an eight-match losing streak that began right after she won her first major trophy at last year’s U.S. Open and included a first-round exit at this year’s Australian Open.
“I have matured a little bit and have recognized the opportunities when they have been presented,” Stephens said. “I think the most important thing is that I have taken those opportunities and done a lot with them.”
Nadal advances to men's final
Under pressure at the outset, Rafael Nadal already had cast aside three break points in his French Open semifinal’s third game when, at 4-all, Juan Martin del Potro held another three.
If Nadal’s march toward an 11th championship at Roland Garros was going to be stopped on this day, things were going to have to go del Potro’s way right then. Both men knew that full well.
“That,” del Potro would say later, “was my chance.”
Ah, but there’s a reason Nadal is 11-0 in semifinals at the French Open, a reason he is 10-0 in finals there — so far. He doesn’t cede a thing and he doesn’t let up. Nadal saved that second trio of break points Friday, held there, then broke in the next game to grab that set. It was part of a run in which he claimed 14 of the last 17 games to overwhelm the No. 5-seeded del Potro 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 and earn yet another spot in the title match at Court Philippe Chatrier.
In Sunday’s final, Nadal will face No. 7 Dominic Thiem, a 24-year-old from Austria who is the only man to beat him on red clay over the past two seasons.
“He’s a big favorite against everybody,” said Thiem, who reached his first Grand Slam final by ending the out-of-nowhere run of 72nd-ranked Marco Cecchinato of Italy 7-5, 7-6 (10), 6-1. “Still, I know how to play against him. I have a plan.”
Surely, so did del Potro. That crucial early juncture altered the course of things, though.
What went through Nadal’s mind right then?
“Just thinking in a positive way and just thinking that I have to hold. ‘I can’t give him the game. If he wins the game, OK. But I will not give (it to) him,’” Nadal said. “That’s the only way for me to approach the tough moments.”
Truth is, there were not many the rest of the way, as Nadal finished with 35 winners and just 19 unforced errors.
This was the No. 5-seeded del Potro’s first semifinal at Roland Garros since 2009. He missed the tournament every year from 2013-16 because of injuries, including three operations on his left wrist. In the fourth game Friday, del Potro clutched at his left hip after being wrong-footed by one shot from Nadal and was visited by a doctor at the next changeover, but said afterward it was not a big deal.
Soon enough, he was yelling at himself, a picture of exasperation thanks to Nadal’s relentless ball-tracking and shotmaking.
“I couldn’t play my best because of him,” said del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion. “His game is too good for me.”
Too good for nearly everyone, nearly every time, on clay.
Nadal is now 110-2 in best-of-five-set matches on the surface, 85-2 in Paris. Over the past two years, including best-of-three matches, the Spaniard is 49-2 at clay tournaments.
Thiem is responsible for both of those losses — at Rome in May 2017, and at Madrid last month – which at least lends a little intrigue to Sunday’s proceedings.