Photo: Clive Brunskill (Getty)

Simona Halep, by age 26—something like the physical prime in modern tennis—had it all, almost. There was still a void at the center of everything. It wasn’t money: She’s made over $26 million in her career and played this French Open in full swoosh gear, hinting at a recent off-court windfall. It wasn’t ranking: She’s hovered in the top five for four years now and finally claimed the tour No. 1 last October for the first time in her life. Halep spent 27 weeks at the apex of her tennis and still spent all of them hungering for the game’s most sought-after spoils, the major title. With Saturday’s 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory over Sloane Stephens at Roland Garros, she found it. And with a little encouragement from her defeated opponent, a visibly gassed Halep finally lifted that long-delayed relief over her head and into plain view.

They play major titles with the hardware sitting right there on the court. This was not Halep’s first trip to a Slam final, and her previous failings could be credibly linked to, if not outright choking, at least some serious diminution once the trophy came into view. In her first attempt, the 2014 French Open, she lost to Maria Sharapova in a tense three-setter, a dramatic, well-fought loss to the woman who had ruled Roland Garros at the time. The settings could not have been more different the next time Halep returned to the final. In 2017, Halep had seemingly every advantage over teenager Jelena Ostapenko, who had never won a title to date (and who also earned this tournament’s wooden spoon). Halep ran up the score 6-4, 3-0 only to grow hesitant and then fall under Ostapenko’s artillery fire. And maybe the most painful of all was watching Halep hack and slash through this year’s Australian Open field—there was the unwatchable ankle sprain, the gnashing 15-13 set against Lauren Davis, the 9-7 final set over Angelique Kerber, and of course, “My ankle ... I can’t feel it anymore”—and clear an opening to the final, where she lost in three sets to Caroline Wozniacki, another longtime No. 1 player who had been awaiting a major payoff. Halep’s turn would have to wait.

Down a set and a break to Stephens on Saturday, it seemed that Halep would be heading right back to the queue, head slung low after all four shortcomings. Both defending U.S. Open champ Stephens and Halep play a steady, bruising style, happy to let their fitness do the talking. This made for long rallies and nourishing viewing and, for a while, a very frustrated Simona Halep who could not find a way through to the promised land, despite sitting just two sets away.

Over the course of the match, though, Halep slowly began to round out into the scuttling defensive fiend she can be at her very best. To get there, she took solace in some bad, old memories. Last year’s ruinous upset served as this year’s psychological coolant: “When I started to win games [in the second set], I said that last year happened to me, same thing, I was set and a break up and I lost the match,” she said after the match. “So I said there is a chance to come back and win it. So I believed in that, and my game was more relaxed.”

Advertisement

The enduring afterimage from the final was the way Halep closed out the 3-0 game in the final set (3:21 above). Stephens hit a flat forehand right into Halep’s backhand, the type of body blow that, against most players, would require only cursory follow-up, likely an approach shot into the opposite corner. Instead, just one scrambling retrieval and one tremendous down-the-line backhand later, Halep somehow became the one in control. The Romanian exploded vertically, horizontally, and finally, straight up into the air to ensure that no scrap got past her, and her reward was the second break of serve in that set, which effectively put the match beyond the point of return. Hopefully it is not those three previous failures but instead that Halep—spirited in three dimensions, twisting defense into offense, unbowed by the weight of the moment—that she holds in her head as she continues her reign at the top of the game.