Simona Halep will take on Sloane Stephens in Saturday’s French Open final, with the world No.1 hoping to finally get her hands on one of the sport’s major titles.
The #SmashTalk team of Vivienne Christie, Piers Newbery and Leigh Rogers discusses whether the Romanian can overcome three Grand Slam final losses – and the US Open champion – and the likelihood of Juan Martin del Potro ending Rafael Nadal’s reign.
Vivienne Christie: Not this time. After three Grand Slam finals, two of them in Paris, all the pressure will be on Halep. For Stephens, there’s a sense of freedom given how few of us would have expected her to reach the final. Scraping through a third-round match with Camila Giorgi with an 8-6 victory in the third set, Stephens has simply played better with every round, deftly adjusting her power-packed game according to her opponent.
This smart, big-stage player can easily do so against Halep in the final, even given the Romanian’s 5-2 head-to-head advantage. Sloane loves clay and loves finals (as her 6-0 record testifies). Both will combine to deliver her with another Grand Slam title.
Piers Newbery: Yes, the time has come. Putting aside the emotional issues Halep faces heading into another Grand Slam final, she has generally had the measure of Stephens in their previous meetings and that is significant – she knows her game is good enough. Admittedly, Stephens is a different prospect now but the form that Halep has shown since the early stages of her quarterfinal against Kerber has been that of a Grand Slam winner.
If the tennis is in good shape, the question remains how Halep will cope if the final starts going against her – letting a 6-4 3-0 lead slip against Ostapenko last year is a ghost that requires exorcising. “I will stay chill,” she says. That could be the key to the final.
— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) June 7, 2018
Leigh Rogers: All credit to Simona Halep on reaching the final, I didn’t rate her chances after a wobbly start to the tournament. There’s no question that the Romanian would be a deserving champion – but it is also hard to see her abysmal finals record not being a factor. With six losses in seven finals in the past 13 months, mentally she has to compete with herself, as well as a confident opponent who is not going to gift her many free points.
Stephens’ impeccable record in tour-level finals is a major advantage too. As the American does not know the pain of losing a major final, it is easier for her to play to win, which could prove the difference in a tight match. I’m tipping Stephens in three sets.
Piers: If anyone can, Delpo can. He has more wins over world No.1 players than anyone in history who hasn’t been No.1 themselves, evidence of his big-match temperament and a game that frightens the very best. It’s been a remarkable effort to reach the semis for a man who looked highly likely to withdraw before the tournament because of a groin injury.
Adored by the French crowd, all the more so after almost breaking down in tears following his quarterfinal win over Cilic, he has the weight of shot and history of wins over Nadal to cause an upset. But will he? Nadal in five.
Leigh: Del Potro is an underdog going into the semifinals but he still has a chance. After all, Nadal is “only human”, as he reminded us after dropping a set in the quarterfinals. Del Potro is one of the few players with the power to blast Nadal off the court and, having already exceeded his own expectations in Paris, the Argentine has nothing to lose and can swing more freely.
That could be dangerous news for Nadal – but a challenge the world No.1 will navigate in four sets.
Vivienne: Del Potro has five wins in 14 matches with Nadal, several of them coming at a critical time. The Argentine upset Nadal en route to his 2009 US Open title and ousted him to reach the final of the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Del Potro’s forehand is stronger than ever, his backhand is returning and as he showed in saving match points against Federer to win Indian Wells earlier this year, those physical weapons are backed by belief. And while Nadal will once again be sentimental favourite in Paris, the popular Delpo will also have plenty of support.
— ATP World Tour (@ATPWorldTour) June 7, 2018
Leigh: No. Only 10 players have achieved this in the Open era – and we’re not going to see an 11th this year. I can’t see any of the men’s semifinalists winning Wimbledon, and the now departed women’s semifinalists Muguruza and Keys are more likely to be title threats at Wimbledon than finalists Halep and Stephens.
Piers: Yes. It’s tough, although not impossible, to see Halep or Stephens repeating at Wimbledon and the return of Roger Federer would seem to rule out the remaining men in Paris, but with every passing year the chances must increase that the Swiss falls short somewhere along the line. Should that happen, whoever wins between Del Potro and Nadal is capable of lifting the trophy on Centre Court next month.
Vivienne: Full disclosure – with my recent predictions proving so dire, I backed Stephens with the superstitious view that it might help the very deserving Halep to at last claim a Slam. And with the pressure of a first major title managed, a second could quickly follow for the world No.1, who has a handy record at Wimbledon. Should she deliver in Paris, watch for a confident Simona to also thrive on grass.
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