After a chaotic two weeks that saw second seed Li Na failing to make it out of the gate, dark horse former champion Ana Ivanovic lose meekly in round three and all-out favourite Serena Williams dumped on the first Wednesday, order has been restored for the Roland Garros 2014 women’s final.
Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep, many fans’ second and third names on the shortlist of pre-tournament favourites, will enter Philippe Chatrier on Saturday afternoon to battle for the Couple Suzanne Lenglen. A repeat of the Madrid final four weeks ago, this has the potential to be a classic showpiece, an entertaining contrast in styles with the added bonus of intriguing subplots. Check out the Sharapova vs Halep Head to Head.
Each woman’s semi-final victory followed familiar recent patterns. Facing the fast-rising Eugenie Bouchard, Sharapova was slow to start and completely shut out in the first set, before edging the second and taking the third more comfortably. Halep won her sixth consecutive match in straight sets, this time taking out the troublesome Andrea Petkovic.
It has become a cliché to laud Sharapova’s mental toughness, but that really has been the key factor in her 2014 French Open campaign. Her tennis was unspectacular, borderline subpar, during her clashes with Sam Stosur, Garbine Muguruza and Bouchard. Her serve fluctuated, her groundstrokes misfired and she found herself staring at the exit door. Yet, just in time, she plugged the leaks and kept rowing.
“If some things are not working out, I don’t just want to quit in the middle,” said the Russian after squeezing past Bouchard. “Because when you lose the first set or a few games or you’re down a break, that’s not the end of the match. That’s the type of philosophy that I play with.”
Simona Halep hasn’t needed to be too philosophical in Paris. She’s been in such sparkling form that her opponents simply haven’t been able to find a chink in the Romanian’s armour. She came into the semi-finals having lost a mere 20 games – the fewest of any player by a wide margin.
She continued in that vein at the beginning of her bout with Petkovic, soaking up the German’s errors to take the first set 6-2. Yet it was in the second set that Halep showed her true class. After falling behind 3-1, and facing a serious test for the first time in six matches, the fourth seed kept her head (but for the odd racket throw). With Petkovic now commanding more of the court, Halep continued to defend relentlessly. She ran around her backhand to manufacture awkward angles, and changed direction so successfully that even the tall and lithe Petkovic was left floundering. Halep got the break back and played mature, composed tennis to take the tie-break and book a spot in her maiden Grand Slam final.
We saw in Madrid that Halep has what it takes to beat Sharapova: she dominated the first set there before getting tight and losing in three. And we know that if Halep can reproduce the form that has brought her this far, she should get the better of a Sharapova who, for all her battling qualities, hasn’t been in peak form over the past few rounds. What we don’t know is how the occasion will affect Halep. Sharapova has been in this situation eight times before; for Halep, it is completely new ground.
But the pocket powerhouse has made a habit of breaking new ground over the past 12 months. Between June of last year and February of this, Halep won every final she contested, graduating from International to Premier to Premier 5 titles. She’ll have learned her lesson from Madrid, and she’ll be ready for the match of her life.
Of course, Sharapova won’t let the chance to win a fifth major slip by easily. She’ll hope to serve well, dictate from the baseline and keep her error count to a minimum. But there is a sense that she can only escape defeat so many times in one event. Halep will frustrate and bamboozle the eighth seed with her brilliant brand of aggressive defence. She’ll make those swift and sudden changes of direction, run down every ball and step up the court when she has the opportunity.
For the first time since Virginia Ruzici and Ilie Nastase’s heyday, Romania will have a Grand Slam champion.
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