PARIS, France - You couldn't script Simona Halep's Slam story if you tried. She was born in the seaside city of Constanta, a beautiful city on the Black Sea that had produced a litany of Romania's most celebrated athletes. Romania's greatest footballer, Ghoerghe Hagi was from Constanta, as were gymnasts Simona Amanar and Catalina Ponor and some of Romania's best ATP players like Andrei Pavel and Horia Tecau.
As a 16-year-old she won the French Open girls title and says that at that moment she wanted nothing more than to one day upgrade to the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. She idolized Justine Henin, the last woman to dominate the French Open, and she counted Virginia Ruzici, the last Romanian woman to lift the trophy at Roland Garros as her mentor and manager. The Coupe Suzanne Lenglen felt like her birthright since she was a teenager.
So of course Court Philippe Chatrier would be the place of her biggest disappointment and greatest triumph. That's just how dramatic arcs are written in the stars. Her three-set loss to Jelena Ostapenko in last years final was, for many observers, the most crushing defeat in a major women's final in quite some time. Up a set and a break at 3-0, Halep had Ostapenko on the ropes. She had double-break point to earn a seemingly unassailable double-break lead and she blinked. Facing the big-hitting Latvian, she backed off and bet the farm on Ostapenko missing more lines than she'd make. It was a bet she lost badly. And very publicly.
You couldn't fault Halep for the tactical choice. She was playing the odds. But she was betting against Ostapenko instead of backing herself. And that decision would haunt her for the next 12 months.
Since Serena Williams' leave from the tour to start a family, Halep has been the most consistent top player. Heading into this year's French Open final, she had made the final of three of the last five Slams. Since reclaiming the No.1 ranking in February, she had held off the challengers to her top spot. In 2018 she made the final four at 6 of the 9 events she's played and the quarterfinals of every tournament bar the Miami Open. While the No.1 ranking seemed like a burden for some, Halep is now 33-8 as a reigning World No.1. Since entering the Top 10 in January 2014, Halep holds the longest active streak in the Top 10.
But there were two gaping holes in the Halep resume before this sunny Saturday in Paris. She was 0-3 in major finals and had lost 6 of her last 7 finals. Across the net stood Sloane Stephens, the recently-minted US Open champion who may not have Halep's consistency but certainly knew how to close out tournaments. Stephens carried a 6-0 record in finals into Saturday's match, having won 12 of the 13 sets she's ever played. At her best - and she always seemed to find her best in finals - Stephens also presented a particularly challenging tactical match-up for Halep.
What do you do if your opponent is a little faster than you, is capable of hitting a bigger ball than you, one who can also serve bigger than you? When she's playing well, what are you supposed to do?
Well if you're the 2018 version of Simona Halep, you don't back down. You back your strengths and wait to pounce.
"Someone told me actually just run and not miss and you're going to win," Halep said. "So I did."
The big question going into the final was whether Halep could walk out on Chatrier on Championship Saturday and banish the demons that haunted her from last year. But Halep didn't banish them. She embraced them. The Romanian admitted that last year's final was on her mind throughout the match, so much so that she began seeing the mirrored parallels as Saturday's final unfolded. A year ago she was up a set and a break and saw Ostapenko march back to win in three. Today, when she was down a set and a break, she knew the comeback was possible. She knew because she had stood on that very court 12 months ago and saw it happen to her.
"When I started to win games [in the second set], I said that last year happened to me, same thing, I was set and a break up and I lost the match," Halep said. "So I said there is a chance to come back and win it. So I believed in that, and my game was more relaxed."
From 6-4, 2-0 down, Halep would go on to win 12 of the last 15 games. Yet there was still a moment to wobble. Once again, she found herself 3-0 up with a break point for a double-break lead. This time the legs didn't get heavy, the decision making did not get cloudy, and the tendency was not to be passive. This time she didn't let the opportunity go. She took it. Because if there's anything Halep has learned in her career in Slam finals, it's that no one, absolutely no one, was going to give her anything.
Battling hard to save break point at 0-3, Stephens hit a strong pair of forehands to force Halep deep into her backhand corner. Halep's backhand down the line found the corner but Stephens defended it incredibly well, putting in a forehand squash that landed as a seemingly perfect dropshot. Halep sprinted forward and somehow go to the ball just in time.
Who knows how this match could have turned if Halep was just a step slower, just a bit more hesitant, just a touch more unsure of herself. Instead, Halep got there, forced the American to come up with her own great get, and then earned the error with a difficult high backhand smash. Stephens did nothing wrong on that point. Halep just had all the answers. The demons had whispered them.
"I remember last year -- I had last year and this year in my mind all match," Halep said. "When, at 3-3 I think in the third set [last year], [Ostapenko] hit the net and the ball was going, like, five meters out and came back to my court.
"So I remembered that. I said, if I [win] this point, so has to be mine this match. I was confident after that."
"The last game I couldn’t breathe. I said this was normal, that I have to embrace these emotions, and I just have to run, run, run.”
Halep has been locked in a precarious negotiation with these emotions for the last two years. Cahill forced her to finally confront them last spring at the Miami Open, when he was unhappy with her attitude in a three-set loss to Johanna Konta and left her team.
The move was the bucket of cold water Halep needed to force a sit-down with herself. She committed to changing herself, working through the irony of becoming a better competitor by letting go of her perfectionism to be kinder to herself. Since then it has been a 14-month search to figure out just how far she could push herself to be a fiery competitor without succumbing to the fire itself. A natural introvert, she started working with a sports psychologist and began openly discussing her emotions with her team and even with the press. Halep said handling the media inquisition after her public failures was perhaps the most difficult thing about the last year, yet she always handled it with class and grace.
"I think the experience of those three finals I lost was today, a positive thing. It gave me a little bit more power to believe that I was able to turn the match and win it.
"I was patient and I never gave up. I think that was the key."