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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Simona Halep defeats Sloane Stephens in gruelling French Open final to end wait for grand slam title

Romanian wins first major title at the fourth time of asking but she was made to do it the hard way

Simona Halep poses with the trophy after winning the French Open final against Sloane Stephens. Yoan Valat / EPA
Simona Halep poses with the trophy after winning the French Open final against Sloane Stephens. Yoan Valat / EPA

Simona Halep had to fight back from a set and break down against Sloane Stephens to win a tense French Open final and finally end her wait for a grand slam title on Saturday.

Top seed Halep looked to be heading for more major final heartbreak when she trailled 3-6 and 0-2 against the American US Open champion, who had never lost in six previous finals.

However, the 26-year-old Romanian recovered to break back immediately before grinding her way to a 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory to win her first major in her fourth final. Halep had twice lost in French Open finals, in 2014 and 2017, and this year's Australian Open.

"In the last game I felt like I could not breathe anymore", Halep said after closing out the win in two hours and three minutes.

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It was the perfect way for Halep to banish the memories of her painful final defeat by Jelena Ostapenko 12 months ago, when she blew a lead of a set and 3-0.

The world No 1 played a scintillating deciding set in which she made only five unforced errors, breaking her major drought in style.

Halep celebrated her victory in a way usually seen at Wimbledon, climbing into her box to greet friends and family.

"I tried to not do the same thing as last year. It's a dream and it's so special to do it here in Paris," she said. "When I was down a break in the second set I just tried to relax and enjoy the match."

The fans at Roland Garros preceded the match with a standing ovation for seven-time grand slam champion Maria Bueno after the Brazilian's death on Friday at the age of 78.

Halep had vocal support from the start on Court Philippe Chatrier, but Stephens was the better player in the baseline rallies and made an early breakthrough as two big forehands left the top seed scrambling.

The early exchanges were brutal in the Paris heat, but it was Halep who found herself forced on the defensive as Stephens moved 4-1 ahead.

Stephens, who was ranked No 957 in the world less than a year ago after her injury woes, was using her bigger forehand to good effect as Halep struggled to make any inroads into her opponent's serve.

She did manage to make Stephens serve for the set, though, and was stepping into the court with more authority, bringing up her first break point.

But Halep wasted the chance and Stephens made her pay, firing an unreturnable backhand into the corner to wrap up the set after just 41 minutes.

A first-ever grand slam final defeat in straight sets for Halep looked likely as soon as Stephens claimed the first game of the second set on her fourth break point.

The Romanian knows better than anyone how grand slam finals can turn though, and she broke back to love to the delight of the crowd.

Suddenly Halep had won 12 of 13 points and snatched the momentum. She then made it four games on the spin as Stephens hit consecutive forehands into the net.

Stephens briefly looked out on her feet, but raised her game by shortening the points to break straight back before levelling the set at 4-4, helped by the first ace of the match.

But Halep dug deep, squaring the final by winning the next two games, as Stephens fired a backhand wide on the first set point.

The American had fatigued irreparably, and it was her turn to fall 2-0 down at the start of the deciding set.

The match was all but ended as Halep clinched the double break in game four after some magnificent defending in one of the points of the match.

Stephens managed to land a couple of late blows, but Halep confidently served it out, sealing victory on her first match point when her opponent netted a return.