Courtney Nguyen, Point: Much of the discussion surrounding Simona Halep during the clay season has been her self-professed new attitude. As the story goes, her coach Darren Cahill was not happy after her third-set check-out against Johanna Konta in the quarterfinals of the Miami Open in March, where she let a lead slip in the second set to lose, 3-6, 7-6(7), 6-2.
"This is my character," she muttered during a coaching timeout after losing the second set. "I am so bad."
Cahill stopped working with Halep after that meltdown but was encouraged after seeing a different Halep on court a few weeks later during Fed Cup and the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix. They reunited before Mutua Madrid Open and she's lost just one match since, an injury-affected loss in the Internazionali BNL d’Italia final to Svitolina.
Players talk about attitude changes, but it typically amounts to lip service. Driven and intense as they come, Halep has actually shown marked improvements.
Yes, there are still flashes of anger and frustration on the court. She is what she is: an ambitious, tightly-wound competitor who can suffer crises of confidence.
Yet all signs of wallowing or self-pity have been banished over this fortnight. When she tore an ankle ligament in the Rome final she refused to let it impact her Roland Garros participation. When she fell behind a set and 1-5 down to Svitolina in the quarterfinals, she refocused and found solutions, manufacturing a stunning three-set comeback.
Against the big-hitting Karolina Pliskova in the Thursday's semifinal, she played the best match of her tournament, playing indefatigable defense and simply refusing to give in. This new Halep may lose - and she can accept that - but she will not be undone. That's no small feat for a player who only recently realized she wasn’t always the competitor she thought she was.
"When Darren told me not to give up, I thought that I wasn’t giving up during the matches, but I did few times," Halep said. "In the most important moments, I did that, and I lost the matches because of that."
It's an astonishing admission from a 25-year-old who for years took pride in her "Fighter Girl" spirit. Those are tough words to hear for any athlete. The surprising aspect of the turnaround is how quickly Halep has been able to flip a switch. Her on-court demeanor is different, she has found tricks to deal with the pressure, and she's cut a noticeably more relaxed figure off-court as well.
It's not an overstatement to say that Saturday's showdown is the biggest match of Halep's career. Not only does she have a great chance at becoming the first Romanian woman to win a major since her manager, Virginia Ruzici, but the win would also vault her to No.1 in the rankings.
This is the perfect storm for Halep to succumb to the crucible of pressure. The patriotic weight she plays with on behalf of a passionate Romanian public can never under be understated, let alone the personal milestones on the line. She was a junior champion here nine years ago and all the signs point to her hoisting the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen on Court Philippe Chatrier on Saturday.
So if Jelena Ostapenko catches fire and starts blasting winners - as we know the youngster can do - will Halep panic? Will she withdraw? Will she revert? We'll see.
Perspective is the key for Halep on Saturday. After bowing out to Ostapenko in three tough sets in the semifinals, 28-year-old Timea Bacsinszky quipped that the Latvian simply isn't old enough to need it.
"She's 20, not afraid of anything," Bacsinszky said of her one-time doubles partner.
"The best example is the match point. I serve very well wide. She's hitting as hard as she can down the line from nowhere. It comes just above the net and in the corner. We'll see if she does it at 28 years old."
It was heartening to hear Halep explain her mindset going into her first major final since 2014. She isn't deluding herself, and knows what is at stake on Saturday.
But...well, let's let Simona say it in her own words:
When Halep and Cahill began their partnership before the 2016 season, they were focused on the long-term project. Under Cahill, Halep has dismantled her serve and forehand, rebuilding them into something stronger.
She is fitter, faster, and for all the conventional wisdom that says a player of her stature can be hit off the court, she has a dominant record against some of the game's biggest hitters. She is a combined 13-3 against Madison Keys, Karolina Pliskova, and Petra Kvitova. Pure power doesn't scare her.
And based on everything she's shown over the last two months, pure pressure won't either.
David Kane, Counterpoint: Unlike Halep, it’s never been a question whether power, pressure, or really much of anything might scare Jelena Ostapenko.
As a teenager, the Latvian went toe-to-toe with one of the game’s biggest hitters to kick off her clay court season, outlasting Mirjana Lucic-Baroni en route to the Volvo Car Open final. As a 20-year-old, she embraced the spotlight to see off Timea Bacsinszky and reach her first Grand Slam final just two months later.
Instead, it all came down to consistency. Did Ostapenko have the patience to play her game, the maturity to compete against experienced opposition through a two-week tournament?
Not one to mince words, the dangerous floater gave the tennis world an emphatically succinct “yes” as she survived a trio of players with the very weapons to counter her fearless hitting.
Samantha Stosur’s heavy topspin and kick serve should have pinned her behind the baseline. Caroline Wozniacki’s defense should have made her hit the extra ball. Bacsinszky’s variety should have upset her rhythm.
All three fell in three sets to a free-swinging Ostapenko who met each obstacle with an inner calm belied by outer theatrics. She may question calls, throw up her hands, or pull the sort of faces that would leave even McKayla Maroney impressed, but her all-business approach to each rally flummoxed the veterans she faces, all of whom expected a meltdown.
“I remember seeing her in the past,” Bacsinszky noted after their semifinal. “Sometimes she was getting a little too emotional. I was hoping that I could use that to deal with her today, but she was stronger.”
A game from her first major final, she struck a pair of return winners to set up match point, ending the encounter with her most audacious forehand yet, one of many players find hard to anticipate.
“Her shots are hard to read,” Wozniacki said, “so you don't really feel comfortable at any point in the match.”
The win over Wozniacki was her fourth in a row, her third this spring, and her second on red clay. One thing Wozniacki is not, to expand on an analogy from Karolina Pliskova, is Simona Halep. The Romanian comes to her second French Open final at optimal confidence, and infinitely greater comfort on clay than the Danish defender.
Speaking to press on Friday, she also admitted her emotions aren’t always idle histrionics:
The Latvian was likely referring to the seventh game in particular; serving up 40-0, she’d win just one more point to get broken as Bacsinszky ran off the next three games to level the match.
A turnaround like that might have triggered a total shutdown in the past; Ostapenko’s on-court coaching timeouts were quickly becoming cult classics for her propensity to take out her frustrations on her coach, mother Jelena Jakovleva, her opponents, and even the tournament itself.
One cannot underestimate, then, the emotional evolution Ostapenko has undergone alongside Anabel Medina Garrigues. The two share a manager, and have paired up while the doubles specialist nurses a shoulder injury. Sometimes funky, never cold, the Spaniard may make up for some of the experience the Latvian may lack.
“It’s really nice to work with her, because she's very experienced and she knows a lot of players.”
One of the players Medina Garrigues knows well is Halep; as a Top 50 singles player, she won four of five matches against the now-No.3 seed, who was admittedly at the start of her own career.
“She wants to end every point in two shots,” she said of her sometimes over-eager charge. “You have to explain to her that she needs to adapt to the rival and the surface, learn to build the point, play more organized and be patient to make less mistakes.
“If she plays well-organized tennis and stays focused, she’s capable of beating anyone.”
That focus will face its greatest test yet as she meets Halep for the first time on Court Philippe Chatrier. The young girl who loves to dance and read detective novels will need to combine what Medina Garrigues describes as her “Eastern European mentality” with “the patience of a Spanish player.”
Throw in the swagger of a college kid and Ostapenko may be ready for the big leagues sooner than anyone believed possible.