Roland Garros 2018: Simona Halep scripts a tale of redemption unlike any other
Simona Halep is a popular champion, and in Paris she showed the world that she is a changed player.
There she stood, up 6-4 3-0 in the Roland Garros final against an unseeded Latvian who had never won a WTA title (forget a Slam) before. Surely, Simona Halep was going to get her first Grand Slam crown now? The memory of the three set loss to Maria Sharapova in 2014, at the same venue, would soon be forgotten.
Or so we thought. The way it unraveled from there, with Jelena Ostapenko hitting the lines and corners with blazing abandon, the heavy favorite was reduced to a spectator in a match she was heavily expected to win.
Halep was shattered (who wouldn't be?!), yet extremely gracious in defeat. In her presentation speech she uttered, "Maybe I was not ready today" and looked towards her team. Darren Cahill, the Australian coach who had briefly deserted her last year because she didn't have the 'right attitude' or the will to pick herself up when things went wrong, looked somber.
From moment on began Halep's journey over the next 12 months, a journey which would take her to a peak she'd never been before.
In October 2017 she would ascend to the No. 1 ranking, possibly the shortest top ranked player since the magnificent Justine Henin. To me, the biggest change she demonstrated in this stretch was her mental toughness - she just wouldn't give up, no matter what the scoreboard said.
The 2018 Australian Open was testimony to her newfound attitude. After beating the American Lauren Davis 15-13 in the deciding set (tiebreakers in deciding sets, anyone?) in the third round, and overcoming Angelique Kerber 9-7 in the third set, no one expected her to put up a fight in the final.
And yet, Halep came into the match with her newfound fighting spirit. If her legs hadn't given away, we could have seen a different champion standing at the end of that match. But the result was the same - Halep was now 0-3 in Grand Slam finals. Not a record to be envious of.
While Caroline Wozniacki won the title and put to rest the questions about being No. 1 without a Slam title, the question followed Halep everywhere now.
So when the French Open came around this year, it seemed like a do-or-die situation. Pundits declared this as the best and possibly last chance for the Romanian to win her Slam. She was No. 1 in the world, Serena Williams was playing her first Grand Slam after giving birth to her daughter, Sharapova has never been the same after returning from her ban, and lastly, the clay season was littered with powerful yet inconsistent winners in the build-up tournaments - Karolina Pliskova in Stuttgart, Petra Kvitova in Madrid and Elina Svitolina in Rome. None of the players were a shoo-in for the title.
While the favorites fell one after the other, Halep marched on, focused and relentless. In her first match, she dropped the opening set to Alison Riske. But she doubled down and won the next two sets in routine fashion and finished the match 2-6 6-1 6-1.
The way she handled Kerber in the quarters and Muguruza in the semis showed that she was capable of counter-punching or attacking - depending on the player across the net.
The final was tantalizingly set up against Sloane Stephens, who has similarly matured and is of course a big match player. Stephens has the easy power to hit through her opponents, and her anticipation is quite special. With the unique capability to blur defense and offense, she was probably the toughest player to play against in a Grand Slam final.
As Halep realized soon enough. Stephens used the court beautifully, and pushed Halep behind the baseline. Before the No.1 seed realized what was going on, she was down a set and a break - in other words, exactly where you don't want to be.
But here is where she impressed us all. When all seemed lost, Halep's shots started finding the depth again. She was more consistent, cut down on errors, and made Stephens earn every point. It paid off, and she was able to put seeds of doubt into the American's mind.
The errors started to flow from Stephens and soon, Halep was up 5-1 in the decider. You could see she wanted it so bad. When a Stephens return found the net on match point, it was done.
Years of waiting were over. The memories of the heart-wrenching losses were gone. There were no tears, no hearts or figures drawn on the red dirt - just plain relief and sheer joy at having conquered it at last.
Simona Halep, the world No. 1, was a Grand Slam champion too! She had done it the hard way, fought for it with all her strength, and deservedly got to the title.
Darren Cahill could be seen with a few tears running down his cheek. The colorful Romanian contingent, that had egged her on throughout the match, shared in the elation.
At the presentation ceremony, Halep said she genuinely thought she would lose when she went down a break in the second set. But somehow, some way, she found a way to enjoy the moment and focused on the cliched 'one point at a time'. Her forehand found its range and in the end, it was a comfortable victory. A well-deserved champion, and a fitting world No.1.
"I dreamed of this moment from the time I began playing tennis", she would say in her speech. In her favorite city, on her favorite red clay, with persistence, hard work and humility, Simona Halep had found a way to destroy the monsters in her head and claim the Suzanne Lenglen trophy.
Simona, you have shown us that it's possible to achieve your dreams - if you don't give up and endeavor to put in the effort. We'll be cheering for you always. And I can say a great many tennis fans around the world will be happy to see you win more of that coveted silveware. Go get them all!