In a waning era of giants and superheroes on the WTA Tour, Simona Halep and Sloane Stephens can come across as inconspicuous. Both have the finely tuned physiques of a professional athlete, yet we could place Stephens in a swimming pool like her mother, or Halep on a soccer field or handball court, and no one would take a second glance. If one does not watch closely, you would think the matchup we saw under the Parisian sky on Saturday — the final one at the 2018 Roland Garros women’s tournament — was nothing more than a track meet. The subtleties of their games that make Halep and Stephens so successful can often be overshadowed by their deficiencies which become glaring when exposed, or when their intensity dips. Both players work extremely hard to diffuse their opponents’ strengths — usually for the better, but not always.
For a set and 2-0, Sloane Stephens did just that. She immediately came out with a plan to target Halep’s forehand and sustained it through the first 11 games of the match. She placed backhands down the line perfectly before continuing to stretch Simona to her backhand side so she could finish with her deadly forehand. Stephens seemed fully in control, while Halep was searching and not able to find viable solutions. She tried to outhit Stephens. She tried to rally with Stephens. She tried drop shots and coming to net, but Stephens was ready for everything that came her way.
Until she blinked. Up 2-0 in the second set Sloane Stephens may have had an inkling of what was beginning to look very much like a formality. Halep broke her at love, and the Romanian was never again the player who looked defeated — not after that juncture. Halep employed one last tactic in order to diffuse Stephens’s fiery forehand… and it worked. From 2-0 down, Halep amped up the aggression on her forehand while aiming higher balls to Sloane’s backhand, which she was unable to return with interest. Stephens failed to create any headway against the added topspin from the other side of the court. Halep kept getting Stephens further and further behind the baseline and Stephens ended the second set in a defensive hole.
In the third set, the momentum had clearly tipped in Halep’s favor. Stephens had been showing signs of weariness since her blink after going up 2-0 in the second set. Whoever could put their foot down first would have the highest hopes of crossing the finish line first. But both women continued to fight for every point in the third. Halep was fueled by the goal of escaping the demons of past blown leads. Meanwhile, Stephens was holding on, intent on testing the refined toughness Halep has shown this fortnight.
Ultimately, Halep remained firm, wedded to her strategy of avoiding Stephens’s forehand. She stayed steady in a 6-1 final-set scoreline that doesn’t do the ball-striking of either player any justice. Realize this: 6 of the 7 service games played in the third set had pivotal 30-all points. Once again two women tried to outmaneuver each other while sliding on clay… and skating on the finest, thinnest margins.
After the match Sloane wouldn’t admit to fatigue, but she did say in an on-court interview with NBC’s Mary Carillo that she regretted not changing her game when Simona came at her with new tactics. Halep has long been derided as lacking a “plan B,” but tonight she can rest easy knowing that she left plans A, B, C, and D out on the court against a version of Stephens who made that a requirement and not merely a choice.
It is unfair to think that Halep’s career needed a major title to be worthy of a number one ranking, but that is the landscape she had to navigate in this era of completion and GOAT-dom.
Stephens, on the other hand, can take confidence from knowing that her level of tennis firmly places her within the top five of the rankings… and that last summer was not a fluke. Both players showed why they have reached five combined major finals in the last 12 months. Opportunity awaits those for whom clarity breeds calmness… and if needed, plan B.