PARIS (Reuters) - World number one Simona Halep gets a fourth chance to finally win a Grand Slam title when she starts as favourite in the French Open final against American Sloane Stephens on Saturday.
The 26-year-old has pedigree on clay, knows what it feels like to step out on Court Philippe Chatrier to contest the title match and holds a 5-2 winning record over Stephens.
She is also playing arguably the best tennis of her career.
There is one major sticking point though, Halep has always fallen just short when the big prizes have been tantalisingly within reach — twice in the French Open final and also in this year’s Australian Open final.
Tenth seed Stephens, the first American not called Williams to reach the Roland Garros final since Jennifer Capriati in 2001, by contrast has a perfect record in Grand Slam finals having beaten friend Madison Keys to win last year’s U.S. Open.
Romanian Halep’s best chance came last year when she was a set and 3-0 ahead against unseeded Latvian Jelena Ostapenko, only to suffer a heartbreaking defeat.
In Australia in January she ran out of gas on a steamy Melbourne night against Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki but after a relatively comfortable passage through the Paris draw, she will be firing on all cylinders this time.
While the match is a huge occasion for Stephens, seven-times French Open champion Chris Evert believes Halep needs it more.
“I think tomorrow is a bigger moment for Simona Halep than it is for Sloane Stephens,” Evert, a Eurosport analyst, said on Friday. “Simona has had three crushing losses in the finals, she is still searching for the elusive Grand Sam title.
“To me, it is really going to depend on who’s the most fearless and who’s going to come out the box and play more aggressive tennis. To me, that’s the deciding factor.”
A year ago Stephens, 25, could hardly have imagined contesting Grand Slam finals — let alone having won one already by the time she turned up in Paris this year.
After the 2016 Rio Olympics she spent nearly a year sidelined with a foot injury and did not play at last year’s French Open. As comebacks go, it has been remarkable.
“Obviously a lot of hard work went into it, a lot of adversity, a lot of ups and downs,” she said. “A lot of emotions, like ‘am I ever going to be the same? Am I ever going to play good again at a high enough level?’”
Having known the frustration of time away from the court perhaps explains her almost trance-like calm in the heat of battle — always appearing unruffled.
Halep is more emotive on court and her tenacity has earned her an army of fans. She will be the popular favourite on Saturday, if only for her sheer perseverance.
“Okay, let’s make a deal. I will play for the fans from all over the world because I know that many are hoping me to win this Grand Slam finally,” she said.
“I will put everything I have Saturday on the court. I will think that I will make many people happy. So maybe I will have enough power to win it.”
Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar