Halep goes 'fourth' seeking to break major duck

PARIS • Simona Halep has been undoubtedly one of the world's best players since first reaching the French Open final four years ago, but the world No. 1 could equal the unwanted Open-era record of most Grand Slam finals without a title.

The 26-year-old has suffered three agonising defeats when one set from glory at the Majors, with last year's loss in Paris after leading Jelena Ostapenko by a set and 3-0 perhaps the most painful.

Halep will have a fourth opportunity to finally lift a Grand Slam trophy when she faces US Open champion Sloane Stephens today in her third Roland Garros final, having lost a tight match with Maria Sharapova back in 2014.

But she insisted that she does not feel under pressure to break her major duck.

If she fails to beat Stephens on Court Philippe Chatrier, she would draw level with Czech Helena Sukova on four defeats from as many Grand Slam finals.

Her third came earlier this year to another perennial underachiever on the biggest stage, Dane Caroline Wozniacki, in a marathon match in sweltering conditions at the Australian Open.

"So I lost three times until now and no one died, so it will be okay," said the Romanian, who leads Stephens 5-2 in their career head-to-head meetings and has won their last four matches in straight sets. "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."

Twelve months ago, while Halep was crumbling to defeat by Latvian Ostapenko, Stephens was off the Tour, attending the wedding of a friend in Ireland.

The American had her own problems - a foot injury and then surgery put her career on ice for 10 months and her ranking nosedived to No. 323 in the world.

However, fast forward a year and the 25-year-old is a US Open champion, is about to reach at least the No. 4 ranking in the world, and is on her best run at Roland Garros.

She had never previously got past the fourth round in Paris before this year. Indeed, this campaign came close to ending in the third round when Italy's Camila Giorgi twice served for the match and was within two points of winning.

"I just try to go day to day, take it moment by moment," said Stephens, who has a perfect 6-0 record in finals. "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 the past fortnight is anything to go by, Stephens can expect Halep to be the sentimental favourite.

The crowd got firmly behind Halep in her win over 2016 champion Garbine Muguruza in the semi-finals. And Halep, already a massive star in her home country, knows she has received growing support from elsewhere.

"I will play for the fans from all over the world, because I know that many are hoping for me to win this Grand Slam finally," she vowed.

One of the main reasons why Halep has yet to lift a major title is her relative lack of power when compared to the game's other big stars. Her craft and guile pushed Sharapova all the way four years ago but could not get her over the line, while it was Ostapenko's ferocious hitting that produced the stunning comeback last year.

But, after seeing off one of the biggest hitters on Tour in Muguruza, Halep insisted she can more than make up for the lack of velocity in her groundstrokes.

She said: "I'm fast, though, no? If I'm able to play my game every match I play, then I have a better chance to win. If I focus on the opponent, then I lose my game."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 09, 2018, with the headline 'Halep goes 'fourth' seeking to break major duck'. Print Edition | Subscribe