Finally a Slam winner, Simona Halep has cemented her status as the world's best player.
Simona Halep didn’t need a major to validate her No. 1 ranking. She’s been the best player week-to-week on tour since Serena Williams took her pregnancy leave. But we inevitably judge players based on their performance at Grand Slams. And on Saturday at Roland Garros, Halep—loser of her first three major finals—finally broke through, elevating her legacy and further cementing her status as the world’s best player.
Despite Halep's consistency, this day never quite felt inevitable. There are no guarantees in tennis—just ask Dinara Safina or Marcelo Rios, two former No. 1s who never won a Slam. And while Halep finally won that coveted trophy after so many near-misses—last year’s crushing loss to Jelena Ostapenko, the 2018 Australian Open defeat to Caroline Wozniacki and so many more—Saturday’s match, a 3–6, 6–4, 6–1 victory over Sloane Stephens, initially looked like another disappointment in waiting, the latest proof that the Romanian couldn’t win the big one. But Halep exposed that narrative as fiction in a convincing, if overdue, triumph.
For more than a set, Stephens, now the top-ranked American, outclassed her opponent, using unshakable defense and baseline aggression to withstand everything Halep threw her way, confounding the world No. 1. The Romanian tried pretty much everything—staying back, rushing the net, playing aggressive, rallying—to no avail.
But after falling behind an early break in the second set, Halep’s tenacity and vigor, two of her great strengths as a player, turned the match around. She collected herself and relied on her superior fitness to wear down Stephens, who looked flat by the end of the second set. In one particularly dominant stretch, Halep won nine straight points. As Stephen’s level dropped, Halep demonstrated her mental strength, flipping the script from last year’s final, when she led by a set and a break against Ostapenko before collapsing.
“I was calm, I was focused and I didn’t give up [in] any moment,” Halep told NBC’s Mary Carillo after the match.
For all the haters who said she‘ll never win a Slam because she‘s mentally weak, go choke on that. Everyone has their own timing and supposed failures are often just stepping stones in an individual‘s life.— Andrea Petkovic (@andreapetkovic) June 9, 2018
Halep asserted her supremacy in the third set, nearly handing Stephens a bagel and giving herself a sizable cushion for any late nerves. After she broke Stephens for the second time in the third set, it was clear: Simona Halep’s moment had finally arrived.
Stephens, 25, isn’t going away anytime soon; the U.S. Open champion has now reached at least the quarterfinals at every major, and looks capable of winning on any surface. Her strong form after her early-season struggles indicates that her title in Flushing Meadows was just a beginning.
Halep’s road to her first major was extraordinarily difficult, but likewise, this French Open crown represents more of a beginning than an end. Still only 26 and finally unshackled from that overwhelming sense of uncertainty, Halep will enter the second half of the season with a firm grip on her No. 1 ranking and a renewed sense of confidence. But whatever comes next, the spirit and elegance Halep showed in her victory on Saturday will define her for years to come.