his time last year, Simona Halep was on the receiving end of a heartbreaking loss in the French Open final. The Romanian was leading by a set and 3-0 before things went horribly wrong for her. Jelena Ostapenko eventually won 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 to lift her maiden Major trophy while Halep was left rueing another Grand Slam final defeat.
This time last year, Sloane Stephens was recovering from a surgery on her left foot – an injury that had kept her on the sidelines for 11 months and seen her ranking fall to 957 in the world. Stephens isn’t even completely sure what she was doing during the weekend of the Halep-Ostapenko match; she told reporters she spent the first week of French Open attending a wedding in Ireland but that’s all she remembers.
A year later, Halep and Stephens are set to clash in the Roland Garros final on Saturday. A lot has changed in one year that has gone by.
Halep went on to clinch the World No 1 ranking and contested another Grand Slam final at the Australian Open in January. Stephens went on to win the US Open title.
For all the highs that both the players have achieved over the last year, there have also been some astonishing lows. For Halep, a third loss in a Grand Slam final again raised questions over her capability of winning on the biggest stage – while she collapsed mentally in 2017 on clay, against Caroline Wozniacki in Melbourne it was her body that let her down.
Halep has also only won one title over the last year, and has lost in three other WTA finals. She has consistently made deep runs into almost every tournament that she has entered, but she has also suffered perplexing heavy losses, like the 6-3, 6-0 drubbing at the hands of Naomi Osaka in the Indian Wells semi-finals.
Ahead of the final on Saturday, the 26-year-old tried not to focus too much on her past results in her press conference. “It’s a big opportunity, it’s a big chance, but you never know. So I lost three times until now and no one died. So it will be ok,” Halep said.
“But I will be, I think, more confident, because I have a lot of experience. But in tennis, you never know, so I will stay chill,” she added.
For Stephens, an eight-match losing streak followed after she lifted the US Open trophy, which included a first-round exit at the Major Down Under. Critics were beginning to wonder if she could replicate her results outside the United States or if her win had been a fluke.
“Tennis is definitely a roller coaster,” Stephens had said during that losing streak. “But I have learned to not panic. It will be ok. There are always going to be times when it’s really tough, and there will be times when you’re on an extreme high. I think for me now, it’s not that great, but it’s nothing to panic about, guys.”
The American eventually broke that streak at Acapulco and a month later won the Miami Open title. She did not have a great clay season leading up to the French Open, but has been in ruthless form at Roland Garros, dropping just one set in her six wins.
Halep had a slow start to her French Open campaign, where she lost her very first set to Alison Riske but has pulled off back-to-back brilliant victories over two Grand Slam champions – Angelique Kerber and Garbine Muguruza.
Halep leads the head-to-head 5-2 against Stephens, including 2-0 on clay and 2-0 within the past year, and all of their matches have been decided in straight sets.
On Saturday, expect plenty of long rallies in this battle between two counter-punchers. The 10th-seeded Stephens has developed into a very patient player on court, and can transition seamlessly from defence to offence.
Halep, who can run for miles along the breadth of the court in a single point, will also make her opponent hit an extra shot at every opportunity. Unlike the previous French Open finals which were won by big-hitters, this match will feature two of the smartest players in the women’s game currently. It will be intriguing to see who turns out to be the more aggressive and attacking player in the final.
In the American’s advantage is her immaculate 6-0 record in title rounds. Stephens has never lost a professional final, and has only dropped one set in all those matches. “I just try to go day to day, take it moment by moment,” she explained. “I try not to put too much pressure on myself.
“That’s the easiest way to compete, when you’re not thinking about too many things. If you’re struggling with things and you’re not happy, it makes it a lot more difficult to have good results or success.”
On Saturday, the pressure will definitely be on Halep – she is the top seed, she has been here twice before, she is playing on her favourite surface and she leads the head-to-head. But across the net will be a very tricky opponent who thrives on the big stage.
This final will be a true test of how much Halep has grown over the last 12 months. If she can handle the pressure, she can finally walk away with that elusive Grand Slam trophy that she has been chasing.