In her exclusive column for wtatennis.com, the two-time French Open champion looks ahead to a battle of two counter-punchers as Simona Halep takes on Sloane Stephens in the final at Roland Garros.
Martina Navratilova
June 8, 2018

I would imagine Simona Halep's scar tissue is pretty thick after losing her first three Grand Slam finals, including two in Paris. But she mustn't play it safe in the French Open final against Sloane Stephens.

If Halep is to break through and win her first major, she needs to step out of her comfort zone and take some chances. She's going to be fired up and she's going to want it so much, which is a good thing as long as you can control it. So hopefully Halep won't want it so much that she can't actually play her best tennis. 

Rivalry Record: Simona Halep vs Sloane Stephens

For me, the mistake Halep made in last year's French Open final against Jelena Ostapenko was that she played too defensively, that she played not to lose. But champions learn from their mistakes so I don't think she's going to make the same mistake twice in the same situation, which is why I expect her to play aggressively against Stephens. Halep knows she needs to go after it. She can't play not to lose, she has to play to win. I think that's the lesson she learned last year. Even if she doesn't want to go for it, she will make herself go for it. 

As the tournament has gone on, Halep has got more aggressive and she should be quite confident in herself and her game after beating Garbiñe Muguruza 6-1, 6-4 in the semi-finals. Muguruza hit the ball hard and moved well but she just couldn't find enough openings against Halep on Thursday. Throughout the French Open, Halep has definitely been more aggressive and more proactive with her positioning and her shot selection. 

Sloane Stephens - French Open 2018 - Getty

Halep's attitude has been great here in Paris. Even when she has been frustrated, it has only lasted for one point and then she has been ready to fight for the next one - she hasn't let any frustration linger. 

I'm predicting a dogfight. I would be surprised if anyone wins in two sets. That's because they have such similar styles, though Stephens has more power. They are both counter-punchers, for the most part. It’s kind of funny in a way - both finalists prefer to hang back but both of them know they need to come out of their comfort zone and be more proactive than they really want to be. Both will be going against their own grain. They defend so well that it's going to be hard for them to hit a winner. And neither one wants to come to net. Which is another reason why it’s going to be hard to find those openings. They both like to play behind the baseline and to defend. 

When Halep played it safe last year, her opponent was a big hitter, who was hitting either huge winners or missing. Against Stephens, there will be much longer rallies and neither one will want to miss. But Halep knows that she has to go after it. 

The only way that Halep can really put last year's final defeat behind her is to win this one. Last year she was playing a big underdog in Ostapenko, but this time around it's pretty even, as she's playing the US Open champion. Neither player is a big favorite here. And that takes some of the pressure off Halep. If she loses to Stephens, that would be easier to live with than losing to Ostapenko. 

Simona Halep - French Open 2018 - Getty

But it could become cumulative in a hard way - losing four major finals without winning is not something you want to keep talking about. So the pressure is greater for Halep than for Stephens, in my opinion.

It can be hard to tell with the Parisian crowd, but I think they'll back Halep, which might help her. Of the two, Halep shows more emotion in a match and, as long as it's positive emotion, the Parisians respond to it. And I think they will want her to finally win here. In any case, I think it will be a really competitive, noisy match and we will be crowning a new champion at Roland Garros.

If Halep were to lose a fourth Grand Slam final, it would become even harder to get over the finish line the next time. Should Halep lose, Wimbledon comes quickly after the French Open and would offer her the chance to redeem herself, but grass is the worst surface for her. The clay of the French Open is a better chance for her to break through. But I'm sure she's not thinking like that, about what might happen if she loses. You don't want to go into that territory. 

You just have to keep on thinking positively. Halep has to say to herself: "This is what happened last year and I just need to deal with it and learn from it. And now I'm back in the final and I'm going to go for it." 

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