Halep & Nadal on top of the world in Paris

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Halep & Nadal on top of the world in Paris

Sentimental favourite Simona Halep banished her Grand Slam final demons and held aloft the Roland Garros trophy after twice being left wanting. It was a case of third time lucky for the plucky Romanian as she came back from a one set deficit to claim the coveted trophy over Sloane Stephens. In the men’s draw, Rafael Nadal shows no sign of ending his reign as King of Clay as he claimed an eleventh French Open title over Austria’s Dominic Thiem, a Grand Slam final debutant. For players at different stages of their careers, the number 17 was key: a 17th Grand Slam title for the men’s #1, and a 17th career title for his female counterpart.

Stephens was an efficient aggressor in the early stages of the final, as she sailed to a 6-3 2-0 advantage. Like all great champions, Halep was able to lift her game when she needed to. Just as she had done in the semi-final against Garbiñe Muguruza (a match which would decide the WTA #1 ranking), Halep found another gear and defiantly made her move, reeling off four straight games in the second set, before Stephens levelled. From there it was all Halep, whose intensity and concentration heightened, while the American seemed to wither slightly, her body language giving off a slight air of nonchalance.

Stephens conceded that “she raised her level and there’s not much that you can really do about that…the better player won the match today.” With Halep at 5-0 up in the third, the result seemed a foregone conclusion, but Stephens briefly threatened a renaissance. However, Halep held her nerve, and as a Stephens return found the net, the Romanian held her head in her hands in a mixture of relief, awe and mostly pure joy. “I was dreaming of this moment since before I started playing tennis.” Reflecting on three previous Grand Slam finals losses, Halep said that she just wants to “enjoy this moment, because it’s really special.”

The players shared a warm embrace at the net and afterwards Stephens was nothing but gracious, saying that there was no one else she would rather lose to than to the number one player in the world.  “I’m glad she finally got her first Slam. It’s a beautiful thing. No matter how hard the adversity that you go through, there is always light at the end of the tunnel, and I’m glad she finally got her light.” A European Junior Champion back in 2006, the win marks Halep’s first Grand Slam win and 17th title overall. To boot she handed the American a first ever loss in a tournament final, her record now standing at 6-1 in finals.

In what was less of a fairy-tale and more of another chapter in an ongoing saga, Rafa Nadal claimed a record-extending eleventh win in Paris. Breaking through to a first Grand Slam final after a win over the unheralded Italian Marco Cecchinato, Dominic Thiem was on this occasion no match for the Spanish clay court warrior. With a break in the tenth game, Nadal tok the first set, and he became more dominant as the match wore on. His low number of unforced errors and success at converting break point opportunities were key to his win. Solid as ever from the back of the court, Thiem could find no answer to the wall that was Nadal. When the opportunity arose, Nadal swooped in to put away any short balls or run around the backhand to frustrate and unhinge Thiem with a bevy of forehand winners. Even a cramp in his all-important left hand at 2-1 30-15 up in the third set could not halter the Spaniard. Eventually, a Thiem return sailed long, handing his opponent a clinical 6-4 6-3 6-2 victory.

The two players are friends off court and demonstrate a level of camaraderie and mutual respect that should serve as an example to any tennis player. Nadal claimed that Thiem is “One of the players that the tour needs. I am sure that he will win here in the next couple of years.” During the trophy presentations, Thiem recalled watching Nadal win his first Roland Garros title in 2005 when he was just 11 years old and that he could only dream of playing in the final in Paris, let alone against the King of Clay himself.

In his victory speech, Nadal saved his last words for the Parisian crowd, delivered in French, “This is the best tournament in the world, for me…thank you to the public for your support. It’s incredible to play here.” With his amazing victory, Nadal becomes just the fourth man in the Open Era to win 3 or more Grand Slams after turning 30. He remains undefeated in Roland Garros finals and he clings to the number one spot in the rankings, a position he briefly surrendered after losing to - who else - Thiem in the quarterfinals of the Madrid Masters. He also increases his head to head count against Thiem, which now stands at 7-3 after his win in Paris.

THE CARNAGE
Last year’s winner, Latvia’s Jelena Ostapenko, was beaten in the first round by Kateryna Kozlova of Ukraine, after having what she described as “a terrible day at the office.” Dealing with her own expectations and those which come with being the defending champion, Ostapenko admitted to feeling “unbelievable pressure.” She went down in two tight sets, thanks to a slew of unforced errors and some great defensive play by her opponent.

Curiously, the winners of the big three lead-up events all lost in round three. Third seed Karolina Pliskova’s loss to 28th seed Maria Sharapova is not as shocking as her seeding may lead to believe. Clay is her least favourite surface, despite her win in Stuttgart. Sharapova was on form, and the combination of the two sent the Czech packing. The winner of the Madrid Premier Mandatory event, Petra Kvitova, was taken out by Annett Kontaveit. The feisty Estonian is a tough player, and was too much for the number eight seed, coming through in two tiebreak sets. The champion in Rome, Elina Svitolina also went home earlier than expected, bundled out by Romania’s Mihaela Buzarnescu.

The third round was also unlucky for the men’s fourth seed Grigor Dimitrov. Losing to Spain’s Fernando Verdasco, the Bulgarian struggled as his opponent, clearly at home on the red dirt, ran away with a straight sets victory. This has been a lacklustre year for Dimitrov, and this result in Paris was his third consecutive defeat in the third round, having bowed out at the same stage in Rome and earlier in Madrid.

THE ANTI-CLIMAXES

While it was a tournament filled with unforgettable moments, there were a few damp squibs along the way. The much-anticipated Alexander Zverev vs. Dominic Thiem quarterfinal was a seemingly mouth-watering matchup. A win over Bosnian Damir Dzumhur in a tough five-set match in round 3 was the German’s first ever win over a top 50 player in a Grand Slam. He had also posted two other five-set matches before meeting Thiem, and the match fizzled. It was a shame that there was little gas left in his tank, as his Austrian friend almost apologetically advanced to his first ever Grand Slam semi-final.

Another sizzling prospect before the event took off was the clash of two female superstars, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. Williams seemed to be getting better and more precise as she progressed through the draw, but a pectoral muscle injury sustained in her doubles match forced her to pull out of the encounter to hand Sharapova a walkover into her first major quarterfinal since her return from suspension. The Russian seemed to be going from strength to strength in her matches, but another match that was expected to be a thriller turned into a reality check, as the 28th seed was handed a 6-2 6-1 defeat at the hands of 2016 champion Muguruza.

THE BREAKTHROUGHS

Obviously, Thiem’s final appearance is a major milestone in his career. However, the biggest story on the men’s side was that of unseeded Italian Marco Cecchinato. Ranked No.72 he caused an upset over 10th seed Pablo Carreño Busta of Spain, followed by a bigger upset, with his 7-5 4-6 6-0 6-3 victory over 8th seed David Goffin in the fourth round. He then went on to defeat Novak Djokovic in his first ever Grand Slam quarterfinal, also in four sets, before losing to Thiem in the semifinal, making the Austrian work especially hard to win the first two sets in two gruelling hours. The story is especially sweet as the 25-year-old Italian had never previously won a main draw match in any Grand Slam.

Russia’s Daria Kasatkina has quietly been creeping up the ranking with solid results all year. Making her way through the draw, she defeated world #2, Caroline Wozniacki for the third time this year. Their late match was interrupted due to bad light, but it could not halter the Russian’s recent spate of wins over the Dane, who has been struggling to make an impact at events since lifting her maiden Grand Slam trophy in Melbourne in January.

DOUBLES

French sixth seeds Pierre-Hugues Herbert & Nicolas Mahut were able to close out their final against second seeds Oliver Marach (AUT) & Mate Pavic (CRO) 6-2 7-6(4). It was especially sweet for Mahut, who had finished as runner-up in 2013. The pair delighted the Parisian fans, being the only French winners in any category at Roland Garros this year.

Womens’ sixth seeded Czech pairing of Barbora Krejcikova & Katerina Siniakova won their doubles final 6-3 6-3 against the unseeded Japanese pairing of Eri Hozumi & Makoto Ninomiya and later dedicated their title to the late Jana Novotna. Ivan Dodig of Croatia & Latisha Chan of Chinese Taipei defeated the top seeds in the mixed doubles, Pavic & Gabriela Dabrowski (CAN), to hoist their first mixed trophy after a 6-1 6-7(5) 10-8 win.

JUNIORS

In what was an amazing feat for the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy, both the boys’ and girls’ champions were current students of Tennis Europe’s partner academy. Former Les Petits As winner Chun Hsin Tseng of Chinese Taipei continued his inspired play on French soil, defeating Sebastian Baez of Argentina 7-6(5) 6-2. The girls’ final was won by 14-year old American Cori Gauff who defeated her compatriot Caty McNally 1-6 6-3 7-6(1), to become the fifth youngest player ever to win a junior Grand Slam. Spoils in the boys’ doubles went to Naoki Tajima (JPN) & Ondrej Styler (CZE), while McNally and Polish former European 14 & Under Champion Iga Swiatek took home the girls’ doubles trophy.

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