Climb every mountain.
Ford every stream.
Follow every rainbow.
‘Til you find your dream.
“The Sound of Music” produced those lyrics above. Call them sappy and sentimental. Call them “straight outta Hollywood.” Call them over the top if you want.
That was Simona Halep’s Roland Garros championship, won on Saturday against Sloane Stephens on Court Philippe Chatrier in Paris.
Were tactics irrelevant in this match? No. As my colleague at Tennis With An Accent, Briana Foust, will write about in her piece on Stephens’ loss, there were certain tactical shifts and adjustments — some made by Halep, some not made by Stephens — which had an effect on this match and how it changed. Halep did tweak her game in important situations to find a path toward the winner’s circle and the victory podium on an emotion-drenched day in France.
Yet, while tactics had a place in this match and a role in shaping the outcome, they were secondary to a much deeper and more elemental aspect of this contest: Would Simona Halep — mind, body and soul — make Stephens feel her presence on the other side of the net?
Let’s provide some context to flesh out the importance and centrality of that question.
Stephens cruised through her first major final against Madison Keys last September at the U.S. Open, and she similarly moved through Keys without too much resistance in Thursday’s semifinal. Halep needed to convey to Stephens that points would not be won as easily.
Second, although Halep led Stephens 5-2 in the head to head going into Saturday, the two relatively recent meetings (in 2017) occurred when Stephens was still working her way back from a long injury layoff. Their meeting in Washington, D.C., in searing heat and humidity, revealed that Stephens had not yet built up her base of fitness and was still in the process of regaining a normal playing rhythm. Stephens faded in the second set after a razor-close first set. The two met a few weeks later in Cincinnati, in a rain-interrupted tournament which forced several players to play multiple matches on the same day. Within a context of jumbled, adjusted schedules, it is not only difficult, but unwise, to assign too much meaning to a match. Grigor Dimitrov won the men’s tournament in Cincinnati, and we can all see how much that win has meant in the following months.
Head-to-head tallies sometimes mean something, but not in this case. This time, Stephens had a fully established fitness base. This time, a tournament possessed a relatively normal flow, and if anything, Halep was the player who was dealt a worse hand by schedulers, something I addressed after Simona’s semifinal win over Garbine Muguruza. Stephens had a number of factors pointing in her direction. It was up to Halep to make the match difficult for the American.
This is one of my favorite aspects of sports: In the push and pull of competition, one side often gains an advantage because it announces to the opponent that it will be difficult to succeed. When this happens, the opponent who gets outplayed — and feels nervous as a result of being outplayed — faces a natural question and must ask it internally:
“Is there something I am fundamentally neglecting or forgetting to do, or do I just have to work harder?”
Of course, the question is an oversimplification, since the answer is often BOTH-AND, not either-or. However, the question elicits the tension competitors face when they are pushed back by quality opposition. Do they need to overhaul everything about their game, or just make minor course corrections and retain trust in the basic building blocks of their approach to the sport?
The temptation for an outplayed opponent — as Halep was in set one against Stephens on Saturday — is to think that an overhaul is necessary when in reality, the solution is not a magical one. As well as Stephens moves on clay (because Stephens is a brilliant, fluid mover on any surface), Halep is a better mover on clay. A child of Romania hadn’t earned a third trip to a Roland Garros final for nothing, whereas Stephens’s ascension on red dirt required more time to unfold. After a first set in which Stephens made virtually no mistakes, Halep — not owning a big serve or an imposing, reliable net game (you can’t win with weapons you don’t have) — had to place this match in the trust and care of her movement on clay and her willingness to slide around the world’s largest (surface-area) court longer than Stephens could.
This wasn’t “hoping and praying for an error.” No, it was more a matter of “remaining steady from the baseline, playing resolute defense, and continuing to ask questions.”
Stephens proclaimed — boldly and loudly — in the first set that Halep would have a devil of a time hitting through the American. Halep could have panicked and sought a radical restructuring of her game, but instead, she stood her ground and did something deceptively simple, the very thing great competitors do when the run of play is cutting against them: Halep flipped the question to the other side of the court. She dared STEPHENS to hit through HER. She told STEPHENS that closing out the match was going to be terrifically daunting.
In the 2018 Australian Open earlier this year, Halep ran a brave and complete race. She fought off three match points against Lauren Davis in the third round and won a 15-13 third set to survive. She won an epic semifinal against Angelique Kerber, 9-7 in the third. She gave Caroline Wozniacki everything she had in the final, but Wozniacki’s much shorter semifinal against Elise Mertens gave the dynamic Dane a fuller tank and a stronger finishing kick, which she used to take the final three games of the match and the title, 6-4 in the third.
This year, Halep’s ability to limit the length of her semifinal against Muguruza — avoiding a third set — gave her more than ample reason to trust her fitness against Stephens. In set one, Sloane made everything difficult for Simona. The Romanian needed to flip that question as the match wore on… and that’s exactly what she did. Halep revealed how fully she had evolved and matured as a competitor. She displayed the internal steel which was lacking last year in her loss to Jelena Ostapenko in a wrenching French final.
Speaking of that Ostapenko match — and adding to the symmetry and poetry of Halep’s redemptive moment in 2018 — the World No. 1 played her very best point at the precise occasion when it was easy to recall her fall from a lofty height a year ago.
In the 2017 French Open final, if you recall, Halep — up a set — was leading 3-0 and had a break point on Ostapenko’s serve. If Halep won that point, she almost certainly would have won the match. However, that point slipped through her fingers. Ostapenko — who can light the world on fire when she gets into a groove — began finding the sweet timing on her groundstrokes which had eluded her in set one. Before Halep knew it, she was flustered, overpowered and exposed. Though she led by a set and a break at 3-1 in the second set, she was not the player who asked questions. Ostapenko had taken over that position, flipping the weight of questions as outlined above.
This year, Halep — once again up 3-0 and break point, so close to a first major title — would not let an opponent change the conversation again. This time, Halep would put a match on lockdown, a sign of the transformation which marks a champion in every sense of the word.
Halep played her best scrambling defense to reset that 3-0 break point multiple times. Stephens — who started the match as the player who absorbed all the pace and power coming her way, and established leverage as a result — found herself on the opposite side of the divide. Now it was Halep who shrank the court and made the large expanse of Chatrier seem smaller for Stephens. Halep won the prolonged exchange and crossed the threshold she failed to reach a year ago. After that point for 4-0, it was only a matter of time before Halep crossed the ultimate threshold, the one she had been waiting to cross her entire career.
This Roland Garros tournament was difficult for Halep in many ways which are well known. The late start on Wednesday of the first week, the tough draw on paper — with major champions in each of the last three rounds of the tournament — and the very short turnaround for the Muguruza semifinal were some of the hurdles Halep had to clear. Yet, as big as those obstacles were, Halep had to remind herself that while Roland Garros proclaimed, “I am going to be difficult for you to conquer, Dear Simona,” she always had the ability to turn to this tournament and say right back, “That might be true, Rolly G, but I am going to be very hard for you to ignore. I don’t plan on being eliminated here.”
Halep constantly flipped the script at this tournament, just as she changed perceptions of her toughness in Australia, just as she avenged painful losses to Maria Sharapova and Ostapenko in the autumn swing of the 2017 season.
This wasn’t an abrupt turn. This was a process which had been set in motion for several months. Some weren’t willing to acknowledge these evolutionary steps in Simona Halep’s mental responses to adversity, but anyone who had been paying attention knew that Halep had already grown a lot before winning her first major title.
What happened on Saturday in sets two and three — neatly inverting the set-and-a-break-up loss to Ostapenko with a comeback from a set and a break down against Stephens — merely confirms all the growth Simona Halep has manifested in her career.
#FighterGirl has been living up to her self-bestowed moniker for some time. Saturday was not a plot twist so much as the last in a series of upward steps.
There are no more mountains to climb — not in the truest sense. Simona Halep gets to sleep the sleep of a major champion, just as Wozniacki did a few months ago in Australia.
Her dreams will be joyful, and the Sound of Music in those dreams will be sweeter than ever before.