x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Rising star Simona Halep is reaching new heights in Paris

After not meeting early expectations in her career, the 22-year-old Romanian charges into the French Open final against Maria Sharapova and takes aim at her first grand slam title.

Simona Halep will try to win her first grand slam on Saturday but the 22-year-old Romanian will have to get past Russia’s Maria Sharapova in the French Open final at Roland Garros. Matthew Stockman / Getty Images
Simona Halep will try to win her first grand slam on Saturday but the 22-year-old Romanian will have to get past Russia’s Maria Sharapova in the French Open final at Roland Garros. Matthew Stockman / Getty Images

Last year, as Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova squared off in the French Open final, Simona Halep was probably sitting at home, after a customary first-round exit from Paris, presumably oblivious to the stunning upturn that was to follow.

Nobody would have been surprised by Halep’s 6-3, 2-6, 2-6 defeat to Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro. She was a modest world No 57 at the time with only six wins in 12 appearances at the four grand slam tournaments. In three visits to Roland Garros, she had one win – against Alla Kudryavtseva in 2011.

Read more: Rafa Nadal crushes Andy Murray to set up French Open final with Novak Djokovic

Outside of the majors, Halep had yet to win a WTA Tour title. She had played three finals, two of them at the Marrakech Grand Prix, but got fourth-time lucky last June, defeating Andrea Petkovic in Nuremberg for her first title. A week later, the Romanian added her second by defeating Kirsten Flipkens in the Rosmalen final and then added Budapest, New Haven, the Kremlin Cup and the WTA Tournament of Champions in Bulgaria to her list of conquests.

Inside five months, she had won six titles, on three surfaces, to finish the year as No 11. On Monday, she will climb to No 3 in the world, whether or not she wins Saturday’s French Open final against Maria Sharapova.

Halep’s success is one of the top stories in women’s tennis in recent years and some of it is about a 22-year-old woman finally living up to the promise she showed as a teenager. A French Open champion (2008) and world No 1 in the juniors, Halep had been touted as a future star for years, but she took some time finding her way among the seniors.

“I was frightened. I was being too defensive with my game and I was doing too much running,” she said this year. “What changed was that I allowed myself to be relaxed on court by taking the pressure off. I told myself to enjoy it and to play with pleasure.”

Getting rid of the fear of losing has been the key to turning things around. Some also credit the breast-reduction surgery she had in 2008 – five years before her first tournament win – for the turnaround. Halep, understandably, is tired of answering questions about that surgery and Wim Fisette, her coach, is hoping things will change after Paris.

“Let’s hope she will win a grand slam and then they will start talking about that instead,” said the Belgian, who has coached former world No 1 Kim Clijsters.

Playing her first grand slam tournament final, Halep does have a chance tonight, but it will not be easy against the reigning “Queen of Clay”. Sharapova, 27, has prevailed over two fast-rising members of Generation Next in her previous matches – Eugenie Bouchard and Garbine Muguruza – fighting back after losing the first set in both.

The Russian is unbeaten in her past 19 three-set matches on clay, including her past seven at the French Open, and boasts a 53-4 record on clay over the past three seasons, including a 1-6, 6-2, 6-3 win over Halep in the Madrid finals earlier this year.

Halep is seeking “revenge” for that defeat and her confidence will be high as she has reached the final without dropping a set. She will have the fresher legs, having played 103 games compared to Sharapova’s 128, which should be an asset if predictions of a three-set final come true.

The last French Open women’s final to be decided in three sets was in 2001, when Jennifer Capriati defeated Kim Clijsters 12-10 in the third, and the fans will be hoping to finally see another close contest.

Since then, eight women have been champions at Roland Garros, with Justine Henin and Serena Williams the only repeat winners. Over the past seven years, seven players have lifted the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.

Paris has also been kind to the first-timers and that should further raise Halep’s hopes. Of the 42 women to win a grand slam title since 1968, 14 count the French Open as their, which is the most among the four grand slam events. The list includes Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, Aranxta Sanchez Vicario, Monica Seles and Halep’s idol Henin.

Henin is also the last person to beat Sharapova in three sets at the French Open, in 2010. Emulating her idol will add to Halep’s incentive.

arizvi@thenational.ae

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