June 9, 2018
Simona Halep isn’t just a world number one. She is a Grand Slam champion. And she has waited a lifetime – and 32 attempts – to hear those words.
In the aftermath she cried as she cuddled the trophy like a long-lost friend and listened to the Romanian national anthem.
She had already climbed up to embrace her family and team, just as many have done at Wimbledon after victory there.
Then she said: ‘Thank you for your support it was amazing. In the last game I felt I couldn’t breathe any more and I just tried not to do what I’ve done in this situation before.
‘I have waited for this moment ever since I started to play tennis. I can’t believe it.’
Halep deserved it. For her courage, her relentless spirit, her refusal to let this final get away from her too.
The scoreline of 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 didn’t tell the full story of how hard she had to fight to turn this one around.
The first set saw Sloane Stephens take total control. She stayed relaxed and the power pinged off her racquet thanks to exquisite timing.
Her natural athleticism allowed her to move Halep all over the court with an effortless ease.
Halep, on the other hand, seemed a completely different player to the one who had stunned Garbiñe Muguruza with her immediate and brutal display of force.
This Simona was tight, tentative and willing at that stage to be pushed around by Sloane’s forehand.
It looked as though Halep’s nerves in a final were going to be her downfall once more. Stephens just needed to keep doing everything the same way.
For the first set she did so, and cruised to a 6-3 completion. To show who was boss, she had inflicted no fewer than 17 forced errors on the Romanian, and allowed herself to be forced into only six.
And it seemed that the second set would tell a similar story, when Stepehens struck early for a 2-0 lead.
But the tigerish Halep simply dug deep and found the courage at last to come forward.
She explained: ‘I just told myself everything has gone so it is time for me to relax and enjoy the match.’
That relaxation was devastating.
Stepehens was wrong-footed, stunned, and nerves began to creep in.
For the first time, the American looked less than immaculate. She began to send shots wide, particularly on the backhand.
Halep didn’t need a second invitation. She won four games in a row, with an explosion of the brilliance that had brought her to finals before.
Then, Simona being Simona, she faltered, almost doubtful, deep in her mind, whether she deserved her lead.
Stephens broke back to 4-4 but this time, unlike before in a showpiece, Halep didn’t crumble.
She summoned new strength, new aggression, shook out the tension and did what she does best – launch wave after wave of attacks.
Closing out the second set 6-4, we wondered whether she would tighten. And in the first game of the third she did, though once more she held her nerve when it mattered.
What followed was utter magic, though frighteningly one-way, as Halep pulled out every shot in the book, raced left and right, deep and to the net, to take total command.
In defence she was defiant, in attack blisteringly severe. And all those nearly moments for the world number one, all those bitter disappointments fell away for a moment of pure, joyous triumph.
Stephens had no reply but took defeat with a smile, a credit to America.
‘Didn’t go my way but it’s still beautiful to be here and well done Simona,’ she said, bringing warm applause from the Parisian crowd.
Simona Halep, world number one, was a Grand Slam Champion at last.
‘It’s emotional to speak as the winner,’ she said.
It’s a feeling she might just have to get used to.