Coming into the 2018 Roland Garros final, the stakes were high. Simona Halep had lost her all three of her Grand Slam finals in heartbreaking fashion — a tough three-hour loss to Maria Sharapova in Paris, losing a 6-4 3-0 lead against Jelena Ostapenko last year, and falling to Caroline Wozniacki in Melbourne despite owning a break in the decider. Whereas, Sloane Stephens had never lost a final in her career and came into the final looking for her second Major title.
Stephens looked well on course to grab the trophy after leading by a set and a break but completely lost the plot as Halep stepped up her game and reflected the unnoticed improvements of her game — the tough mentality and never-say-die attitude. It was relatively common for Halep to gradually fade away after a slow start in the past, but in 2018 you would rarely see it happening from the Romanian as she will often somehow find a way back into the match and remain in contention.
From a set and a break down, it was a terrific comeback from the world number one who consolidated her position as the top-ranked player with her maiden Grand Slam title, winning 12 of the last 15 games to claim the confidence-boosting win. Halep would continue to ruin Stephens’ originally-perfect record in finals as the Romanian prevailed in yet another tightly-contested final between the pair at the Rogers Cup.
Stephens looked invincible during the start of the match but her level of intensity experienced an obvious dip which Halep took advantage of. The world number one found a loophole and all it took was just that poor service game played by Stephens which would completely change the dynamics of the match.
Many would ask me, why would this match come in at #4 on the list of Top 5 comebacks in the year? Considering the amount of pressure faced by Halep and the expectations weighed on her before the tournament, her performance, especially mentally, was commendable and out-of-the-world.
Having lost two heartbreaking Roland Garros finals, a third consecutive loss was on the cards when Stephens led by a set and a break. On both occasions, it was the mental strength that Halep lacked which proved costly. However, this time it was the same factor which pushed Halep to the title, with this being a new landmark in her career.
Stephens sneaks past Halep to take the first set
The opening stages of a Grand Slam final might not always be the best tennis you will see — the nerves and pressure will cause both players taking time and warm up to the occasion and a slow start would not be surprising. However, some quality ball-striking from both Halep and Stephens showed that they are ready for the challenge early on.
Stephens started the match serving, and it seemed as though handling the huge amount of pressure is a piece of cake for the American. She was able to find her solid first serves consistently and closed out the opening service hold with a stunning backhand winner. In the first set dominated by the servers, Stephens’ fast start to the match proved crucial as she managed to get straight into business without messing around.
Halep did well to match Stephens’ level as well, although she got into a tricky opening service game but managed to escape unscathed. The Romanian was attempting to be more aggressive than her opponent, but Stephens’ counterpunching skills were just too good as Halep was often frustrated by her failure to close out the points. The American looked flawless in her game and Halep was struggling to match Stephens in terms of patience.
That proved to be the lone break throughout the entire first set, although when Stephens faced some nerves when serving for the set. Halep earned her sole break point of the set just when it mattered, but could not convert the opportunity as she went for a risky backhand winner — and it backfired on her. Stephens, with the help of several strong serves, proved to be too solid and surged to take the high-quality first set 6-3.
Halep fights back from nowhere, sends the match into a decider
Poor shot selection highlighted Halep’s struggles to deal with Stephens’ unbreakable defence and remarkable counterpunching skills. She showed some great fight but just the fight alone was not enough as several impatient errors allowed Stephens to claim the break in the first game of the second set.
Retrieving from a 0-30 deficit, Stephens managed to consolidate the break for a commanding 2-0 lead. At this point in time, the American 10th seed was the huge favourite for the win as Halep was releasing some negative energy and everything seemed to be going towards Stephens’ way.
However, a loose service game from Stephens was enough to completely change the outcome of the match. Protecting the lead is often more difficult than building the lead, especially in the situation of a Grand Slam final where the smallest of errors would be punished.
Within a blink of an eye, Halep stepped up her play and gained confidence by rattling off 16 of the next 20 points to take a 4-2 lead from nowhere. Stephens started to get fired up and broke straight back to love and returned level on the scoreboard. The match was getting interesting towards the closing stages of the set but it was Halep who held her nerves and completed the comeback to send the match into a final set.
Halep dominates the proceedings and claims the win
With all the momentum running in her, Halep completely ran away with the deciding set. Halep, with some fantastic aggressive play, broke through Stephens’ stubborn defence and jumped out to a formidable 4-0 lead in lightning speed. In fact, do not be deceived by the scoreline as all four games went to 30-30 but Halep was more decisive and clutch on the crucial points which allowed her to earn the huge advantage.
Serving to stay in the match down 0-5 0-30, Stephens fought for some dignity as she battled back to secure a consolation service hold to get onto the scoreboard. However, the comeback was not on the cards as Halep sent down an unreturnable serve to claim her maiden Major trophy on her first championship point.