June 7,2014(ISN) – In a Roland Garros final with more twists than an Olympic slalom, Maria Sharapova defeated rising star Simona Halep to lift the Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen for the second time in three years. The Romanian arrived in her maiden Grand Slam final without the loss of a set, and although she wounded Sharapova with the weapons which made her invincible against all other opposition, she did not have enough in her armoury to inflict mortal damage. It was an epic battle – the first three-set final since Jennifer Capriati came back to defeat Kim Clijsters 13 years ago. But it was Sharapova who survived the scorching sun and sapping humidity on Philippe Chatrier Court to take it 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-4 in three hours and two minutes.
The first set was a humdinger, filled with long pummelling rallies. Time and again Sharapova fired strokes that would be winners against most rivals, only for Halep to find some way to get it back. The Romanian was opening up the court with cross-court angles, and Sharapova was obliged to prove that her mastery of the clay-court game included movement good enough to cope. She made life more difficult for herself by throwing in her old problem of double-faulting, which she began in the very first game. The subsequent break gave Halep the advantage only until Sharapova levelled for 2-2. But both women were giving it everything, and by the time Sharapova held for 3-2, already 35 minutes had elapsed.
And then suddenly, after all that intensity, Halep leaked two unforced errors and Sharapova summoned a power winner for 4-2 to put clear water between them. The Russian was ratcheting up the noise levels, and Halep wilted a little as Sharapova held with ease for 5-2. Halep tried to reassert herself, and managed to hold to love. Then Sharapova double-faulted for 15-40, and tried too hard to put a winner beyond Halep, sending it out. Halep had won eight of the last ten points and all the momentum was with her, only for her to lose it again on her own service. She saved a first set point but then overcooked a forehand to give Sharapova the cheapest of points at an expensive moment. The set was gone.
Losing the first set to Sharapova at the French Open is a fast way to create a mountain to climb. Coming in to this final, in her last 41 matches at Roland Garros where she has won the first set, Sharapova had triumphed on all but one occasion. Even for those who manage to level the match at one set all, the bad news is that – before this match – she had won all 19 of her last three-set matches on clay, in a streak going back four years. And Halep was already facing an opponent she had never defeated, with her most recent loss at Madrid last month.
It got worse for Halep – she double-faulted to give break point at the start of the second, and then sent the ball way wide for 0-2. But to the thrill of the crowd she put it back on service next game, and from then until 4-4 the Romanian would not be shaken. It was noticeable that the note of Sharapova’s trademark grunt changed, from the usual singsong coo to something more indicative of real effort. Then Halep brought up break point at the end of an epic 20-stroke rally which Sharapova should have closed out but instead ended with an error; moments later a cross-court forehand landed out and Halep had broken for 5-4.
When the net cord gave the break back, it should have been a hammer blow. Instead Halep roared back for 6-5 – and then allowed Sharapova to take it in to the breaker as the match passed the two-hour mark. Halep was flagging at the start of the tie-break and Sharapova seemed to be edging away, only to make three unforced errors to take it to 5-6. Halep’s return on set point was too good and the match was locked at a set apiece.
Sharapova took a lengthy comfort break. As the players continued to trade breaks on her return, the Russian took so long to deliver a service that umpire Kader Nouni gave her a time violation warning. Halep came up with the first hold in seven games, with Sharapova following suit, before they traded breaks again mid-set. The clock was approaching three hours as Sharapova finally took command, sprinting for a forehand winner to break for 5-4. This time she would not be denied, holding to love, and sinking to her knees.
It is impossible to think there will not be other days for Halep. She will be the new world No.3 come Monday, and she has proven time and again this fortnight that she is surely the real deal. But Sharapova, the woman who once so loathed the red dirt, now loves the surface so much that she has made it the most successful of her career. And clay loves her right back.