I couldn’t believe my ears.
In the media bar at the French Open, a reporter quipped, “Yeah, she’s the Buffalo Bills of tennis.” The Bills lost the Super Bowl for four straight years. Super Simona Halep had only lost three Grand Slam finals over four years.
Sports can be cruel. But three times, as her foe lifted the crown, we have seen the sensitive 26-year speak bravely. Her tear-inducing concession speeches touched hearts. Two of her three losses were here in the cradle of clay tennis, Stade Roland Garros. Plus, recently there have been stunning blow-outs in individual sets, and in the past year there were other losses in finals, in Cincinnati, Beijing, Melbourne and Rome. While no one would dare call the No. 1 player in the world a choker, closing matches clearly is not her strength. And the most painful of losses came just a year ago here in Paris when she was only seven points away from victory. But she soon seemed hapless, as young Jelena Ostapenko got in the zone and unleashed a power assault. Then, in Australia, Halep again came close, this time against Caroline Wozniacki, in the final.
The 5’6” baseliner was left to settle for two different crowns. She became No. 1 in the world – that works. But she had the burden of another distinction – the best WTA player to have never won a Slam. Long a star in Romania, the plucky 26-year-old had gained sympathy and is a social media star.
We don’t know whether Venus Williams has ever taken in the famous Venus di Milo statue at the Louvre. But we do know that Sloane Stephens recently visited the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, famous for its air of mystery and the most ambiguous “What is that lady thinking?” smile we’ve ever seen.
Stephens is not the Mona Lisa, but she is different from most, and hard to read. Enigmatic is an understatement. The coy 25-year-old – who does ads for chocolate milk – is cool, calm, oh-so-bright and very much a millennial.
A year ago, during the French Open, she was at the tail end of her recuperation from foot surgery. She found herself in Chicago at an academy playing indoors next to screaming five- and six year-olds.
Today, she was in front of 14,840 Roland Garros fans, putting on a sublime first-set show. Stephens combines speed, grace, anticipation and flash power. Her foe, Halep, scampers with fierce intent. Sloane flows – no hassle.
There is no human being who plays tennis with the majesty of Roger Federer. Still, dare we say, among the WTA’s players, we see hints of the master in Sloane’s flow – such athletic grace.
After 17 minutes she broke Halep to go up 3-1. Taking the initiative, she hit with power to the lines and defended with ease. There was one quiet explosion after another. Halep was always a beat behind. Her shots were too flat. She left the court open. She suffered too many errors. This was not a matter of “freezing,” which some say Madison Keys did in last year’s US Open final. As Stephens opened a commanding 6-4, 2-0 lead, it seemed clear the media would be writing triumphant tales of an American in Paris. There were no cracks in her armor. She would extend her uncanny winning streak in finals to 7-0. Amazingly, she would claim two of the last three Slams.
Sloane’s personable coach Kamau Murray loves to use sayings. One of them is “total truth.” The “total truth” is that rarely has a Slam final turned around so suddenly. It’s said that beating Rafa Nadal in five sets on clay is the hardest thing to do in sports. But closing out a Grand Slam is tough too. Sloane seemed to begin to think about the inevitable. Where’s the finish line? Can I win this thing?
In contrast, Halep later confided that when she was down a set and a break, “I just said to myself, everything is okay. I just have to relax and enjoy the match.” Boy, did she. Just when all seemed lost, Halep counterattacked in a flash. In a match that had more twists than are in Stephens’ signature ponytail, you sensed Halep’s problem-solving gears were working. She gave more arc to her forehand, slowed the pace yet grabbed the initiative. She started to try to go around Sloane rather than through her. She hit with more depth, was patient and convincingly won nine points in a row and opened a 4-2 second set lead.
One of coach Murray’s sayings is “From calm there comes clarity.” But at this moment, Sloane was neither calm nor clear. Time and again she stared at her box or slapped her thigh. She seemed lost.
Another phrase is “move through the pressure.” Instead Stephens’ lithe movement and uncanny speed slowed. Sloane had earlier coined the fun phrase “bounce-back-ability.” But today there wasn’t much fun for her and less “bounce-back-ability.” Her down-the-line backhand suddenly became errant. She missed the open court with easy forehands. Her drop shots were too often duds and she tired. Yes, her wheels had been wondrous in the first set. Now the wheels had come off her game.
Halep didn’t let up, winning eight of the last nine games. There would be no collapse today. Rather a girl’s dream would be fulfilled. Exactly 40 years ago Romanian Virginia Rucizi won here. Ten years ago Halep claimed the French juniors; Roland Garros is her favorite tournament; Paris her favorite city; the fairy tale narrative was clear
When she finally secured her 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 triumph, you could feel the weight come off her shoulders. She beamed, all those expectations vanishing. Loved ones in her box hugged. Romanians who packed the arena waved their flags, and fans from Bucharest to Beijing saluted the perseverance and grit of a great champion. In the last seven Slams there have been seven different winners. But today there was just one chant of joy – “See-mon-a! See-mon-a!”