PARIS • Already No. 1 in the world, Simona Halep showed that she could be a Grand Slam champion too and prove her critics wrong.
After losing her first three Major finals, the Romanian defeated Sloane Stephens 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 yesterday to win the French Open and join the ranks of top players who had to persevere before they gained a Grand Slam singles title.
Jana Novotna, the Czech star, lost her first three Major finals, finally winning Wimbledon in 1998. Kim Clijsters lost her first four Major finals before winning the US Open in 2005.
Halep, twice a runner-up in Paris, also became the first Romanian woman in 40 years to win at Roland Garros, after Virginia Ruzici in 1978.
It was the perfect way for the 26-year-old to banish the demons of her painful final defeat by Jelena Ostapenko 12 months ago, when she was up by a set and 3-0.
This time round the roles were reversed. US Open champion Stephens had looked set to lift a second Grand Slam trophy when leading 6-3, 2-0, but the American 10th seed wilted in hot conditions and Halep pounced.
The top seed played a scintillating deciding set in which she made only five unforced errors, breaking her Slam duck in style.
AT THE SUMMIT
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...
ANDREA PETKOVIC, German tennis player, on Halep's victory.
She 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," said Halep, who finally won her coveted prize after 32 previous unsuccessful attempts at a Grand Slam.
"When I was down a break in the second set I just tried to relax and enjoy the match. Thanks guys, it was amazing and I felt your support. Honestly, I can't believe it... In last game I didn't breathe any more. I did everything I could. It's amazing what is happening now.
"Last year it was tough to talk because I lost this match. But it's emotional to be making this speech as a winner. I've been dreaming of this since I was 14, since I was starting to play tennis."
German Andrea Petkovic, who Halep beat in the third round, tweeted: "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."
Those words summed up Halep's journey. Last year's defeat by Ostapenko left her reeling, and she subsequently lost to Maria Sharapova in the first round of the US Open. But the Romanian regained momentum in the final two months of the season, rising to No. 1 in the rankings for the first time.
"She's done a very nice job of being able to put some disappointments behind her and get back to work and keep looking for improvements," her coach, Darren Cahill, said.
At this year's Australian Open, she scraped her way through the draw, saving five match points en route to the final, only to fall just short against Dane Caroline Wozniacki, who won her first Major title.
"Maybe the fourth time will be with luck," Halep told the crowd at the awards ceremony then, shortly before checking into a Melbourne hospital with severe dehydration after the draining three-set final.
A little more than four months later, a re-energised Halep is finally feeling quite a lot better with the Suzanne Lenglen Cup in her hands.