After counting down the Top 5 matches at WTA events in 2017, our year-end review moves to the best Grand Slam matches of the season!
No.3 is the dramatic duel between Simona Halep and Elina Svitolina to advance to the semifinals of an exciting French Open, where all of the final eight players were looking for their first major title...
WHAT HAPPENED: As the French Open reached its climactic stages, many of the players remaining could have been considered slightly surprising potential champions going into the event -- a mix of unproven upstarts trying to make a name for themselves and veterans of the upper echelon who had not been particularly savvy on clay courts.
But one quarterfinal match-up stood apart, featuring players who had been pegged as two of the top favorites to hoist the championship trophy. Simona Halep and Elina Svitolina went into their match knowing that the victor would move into the final weekend as the pick of most pundits to claim her first Grand Slam title.
The duo entered the French Open having won the two largest lead-up events en route: Halep emerged victorious at the Mutua Madrid Open, while Svitolina outlasted Halep in the Internazionali BNL d'Italia final one week later. The emotional heft of these expectations led to one of the most volatile Grand Slam matches in recent memory.
Read the match report: Halep returns to Roland Garros semifinals after epic comeback
At the start of the encounter, Svitolina picked up where she had left off in Rome, racing to a 5-0 lead before Halep knew what hit her. The Ukrainian No.5 seed deftly maneuvered herself around the court, hitting 13 winners in the first set to Halep’s four, and exhibiting the movement and craftiness that had just recently pushed her into the Top 5 of the world rankings.
Halep slowly shook herself out of her fog, and found more of a rhythm on the pinpoint groundstroke game which had kept her inches from the No.1 ranking for the entire season.
Nonetheless, Svitolina appeared unstoppable, scrambling all over the court to maintain her momentum and serve for the match at 5-2 in the second set.
Suddenly, with victory in touching distance, the dominance by the Ukrainian disappeared as quickly as it had started. A flurry of panicked unforced errors gave life to the 3rd-seeded Romanian, and, almost instantly, a seemingly different match commenced.
Halep leveled the match at 5-5, and then had four set points on Svitolina’s serve at 6-5. Svitolina, to her consummate credit, saved them all, pushing the set into a tiebreak, where she held a match point on Halep’s serve at 6-5.
Halep saved it after a rally forehand landed square on the sideline, which led to an easy backhand winner on her next shot.
Two points later, Halep hit a forehand which clipped the netcord. The gesticulating Romanian appeared to be disheartened for a nanosecond after the shot, but the ball lazily dribbled over the net, and Svitolina could only watch in amazement as Halep stole the second set from under her nose on the Romanian’s fifth set point.
After a solid stretch of staying afloat while her lead dissipated, Svitolina finally succumbed to the weight of the occasion and the sheer arbitrariness of the second set’s ending.
Her service verve disappeared in the third set, as she won only 40 percent of points on her first ball. Svitolina hit 10 unforced errors in the final set, while Halep, tightening her game, only had one, along with eight winners.
Halep hit an ace to close out the match, 3-6, 7-6(6), 6-0, and the Romanian completed a stirring comeback, which initially seemed to give her a high level of confidence as she progressed to her final two matches.
WHAT THEY SAID: Halep credited Svitolina’s outstanding start while acknowledging that she herself had not been playing up to par. “I feel that she played unbelievable tennis [in the] first set until the end of the second set,” the 2014 Roland Garros runner-up concluded. “She played well, but also I played a little bit short, I think. My ball was not going as long as I wanted, but she was dominating the match.”
The No.3 seed had felt completely downtrodden by that point. “I just sat down at 5-2. I said that the match is lost. So I did nothing to change something, to change the rhythm, that's it. It's over.” But the resignation within those thoughts ironically gave Halep a measure of freedom, which she used to spur on one of the most unlikely comebacks of the year.
“I started to feel more relaxed maybe because I thought it's finished, and I change the rhythm,” said Halep. “I put some high balls. I just tried to make her move more, to open the court, and it came. I don't know how, but it was really good.”
As for Svitolina, the then-22-year-old could have left Paris shellshocked when the match fell in her opponent’s favor after such a large lead went begging.
“I started maybe going for too much sometimes and then she was back into the game,” explained the Ukrainian. “A little bit of nerves, of course, played the trick.”
Nevertheless, Svitolina, bolstered by her gradual rise into the elite, was still confident about the direction her year was headed in, despite the loss.
“I don't really need to talk about this match as, like, a bad experience or something,” said the fifth seed.
“I think it's good. Okay, I am sad today, but tomorrow is gonna be another day, you know, and life continues.”
After crediting her opponent’s mental reserve and her own strong play throughout the season, she smiled. “I think I cannot be sad tomorrow.”
Regardless of their perspectives regarding the turnaround, Halep will always remember one point in particular.
“The set ball with the net[cord], I was finally lucky in this match,” she exclaimed about the point that put her on even footing for the first time in the battle, and led to her slide to the finish line.
WHAT IT MEANS: Svitolina’s relatively upbeat demeanor after a surely disappointing loss was not a front. After winning four titles prior to the French Open, she tacked on another title at the Rogers Cup presented by National Bank in Toronto, finishing the year with five singles titles (including three Premier 5 events), more than any other player on the WTA in 2017.
Svitolina peaked at No.3 before finishing the year at No.6, her first Top 10 finish, and qualifying for her first BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global along the way.
Her excellent year on the WTA bodes well for 2018, as she looks to become a more definitive presence at the Grand Slam events.
Halep, meanwhile, finished the year as the World No.1, and has a run to the final of Roland Garros, including this win, to thank for that position. But the immediate aftermath of her tremendous comeback over Svitolina was much more bittersweet.
As the eight players who were looking for their first major at the French Open were whittled down to four, Halep was being pointed to as the prohibitive favorite.
In the semifinal, however, she struggled mightily again, eventually triumphing in three sets over Karolina Pliskova, who, despite being the second seed, was still unsure of herself on the red clay of Paris.
Finally, after a long clay season and two brutal battles in her last two rounds, Halep faced off against the unseeded 20-year-old from Latvia, Jelena Ostapenko.
The Romanian had to withstand a barrage of huge hitting from Ostapenko, and, stunningly, despite holding a 6-4, 3-0 lead, she could not muster up one more three-set win for the title.
Will it be third time lucky at the French Open for Halep in 2018?