PARIS, France - World No.1 Simona Halep ended her quest for a maiden Grand Slam title in emphatic style, coming back from a set down to defeat Sloane Stephens at the French Open and lift the Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen.
After falling in three previous Grand Slam finals - including two at Roland Garros - Halep, the ‘emotional fan favorite,’ finally triumphed against US Open champion Stephens, winning 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 after a nearly two-hour battle on Court Philippe-Chatrier.
“It's a special moment. I was dreaming for this moment since actually I started to play tennis,” an emotional Halep told press afterward. “It's my favorite Grand Slam. I always said that if I'm going to win one, I want it to be here. It's real now...
“My family was all the time supporting me since I started to play tennis, also all the coaches and all the people that I have worked during this 20 years. Thanks to them, because it's tough to keep working every day at the highest level.
“All the friends, all the people that are really special for me in this life. Without them probably I couldn't, you know, come back after losing three finals of Grand Slam. But now I want just to forget everything and just enjoying this moment because it's really special.”
Halep’s victory makes her the first Romanian woman in 40 years to win Roland Garros, after Virginia Ruzici in 1978, and marks 10 years since she lifted the Junior title here in 2008.
It was no easy road to get there, however, as Halep faced her fair share of testing moments throughout the fortnight; she had to stage comeback wins in the first round against Alison Riske - she was down 0-5 in the first set - and in the quarterfinals against Angelique Kerber, recovering from a 0-4 deficit in the opener.
Her World No.1 ranking was also under fire throughout the whole tournament - she fought off six challengers and needed to return to the final to stay at the top.
Despite the vocal "SI-MO-NA" chants raining from the stands, the match started out with Stephens fully in charge. The American’s patient and aggressive style of tennis forced Halep to go for bigger shots - and drew out unforced errors. Stephens, who came into the match with a 6-0 record in championship matches, looked firmly in command despite contesting her career-first final in Europe.
She grabbed the opening break at 3-1, and although Halep seemed to find her rhythm as she played from behind against the score, she wasn’t able to make any inroads on the Stephens’ serve. She created just one break chance the whole set, in the very last game - and the American served out the opening set with little fuss.
But Halep finally halted her momentum, recovering from an early break in the second and taking advantage of a dip in energy from Stephens to level at 2-2, jolting the American out of her rhythm and putting together her comeback. They traded breaks twice more, but Halep’s forehand was firing as the Romanian edged through in the second.
The third set was a completely different story for Halep, who quickly built up a double break lead to get ahead 5-0. She had every answer for Stephens’ power and variety, and sealed the victory with an ace to claim her first-ever Grand Slam title.
“[Halep] raised her game, raised her level,” Stephens told press. “Not much you can really do about that. I competed the best I could, and the better player won the match today.
“I think she's had a tough journey. I think winning here is very special for her and I'm glad she finally got her first slam. It's a beautiful thing, very special.
“No matter how hard the adversity that you go through, there is always light at the end of the tunnel, and I'm glad she finally got her light.”
It’s a fitting, full circle moment for Halep after last year’s heartbreak: in last year’s final she led Jelena Ostapenko by a set and a break before letting the victory slip out of her grasp.
“Last year I was a little bit defensive when I was leading the match, and now I just change it in my mind,” Halep said. “I said that I have to hit the balls. I have to move and not thinking about the last game. Just every ball, every point.
“I said, It's not going to happen again, but it's okay. I have just to play. And then when I started to win games, I said that last year happened to me, same thing, I was set and a break up and I lost the match. So I said there is a chance to come back and win it.
“I believed in that, and my game was more relaxed. I could make more things on court, and that's why I could win.”