There is nothing that can be said to console Simona Halep following her latest loss in a Grand Slam final. Only something that transpires on the court at some point in the future can take care of that (see: the French Open in four months, perhaps). But, even though these words are hollow in the consolation department, the bottom line is this: it’s only a matter of time.
In the aftermath of two tough French Open final losses (2014 and 2017), Halep’s status as a future Grand Slam champion seemed probable but also nowhere near a lock. It wasn’t that she got completely humiliated by Maria Sharapova in ’14 or by Jelena Ostapenko a season ago; quite the contrary. It was the way in which she fell in those finals that perhaps sewed the seeds of mental scarring.
At Roland Garros in ’14, Sharapova won the last eight points on the title tilt starting at 4-4 in the third set to finish off Halep 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-4 in three hours and two minutes.
It was all right there for Halep to erase those demons when she took the same court at the same stage of the same event three years later. This time the Romanian went up against a 20-year-old Latvian upstart in the unseeded Ostepaneko. Leading 6-4, 3-0 and with three break points to lead by a double-break at 4-0 in the second, Halep had the trophy all but in her grasp. Instead, Ostapenko stormed back for a stunning 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 upset.
“For me, this one hurts a lot because I realize more what is happening than three years ago,” Halep admitted. “(It) hurts a lot, and I need time to go away…. I felt sick in the stomach to play in this final, so maybe I wasn’t ready to win it. Maybe next time.”
Mentally, she wasn’t ready.
It’s safe to say she was ready seven months later in Melbourne.
Halep’s run this past fortnight showcased an incredible level of mental and physical fortitude. The world No. 1 (No. 2 on Monday) sustained a nasty ankle injury early in the second set of her first-rounder against Australian wild card Destanee Aiava. Take a quick gander at the replay and you would see that almost any mere mortal would not have made it through that match. But Halep did–even in straight sets–and then proceeded to get through six more despite probably never getting all the way back to 100 percent.
She mounted a miracle comeback from 10-11, 0-40, triple-match point down against Lauren Davis in round three, eventually winning that thriller 4-6, 6-4, 15-13. Two more match points were saved–moving her total to five for the fortnight–in a 6-3, 4-6, 9-7 semifinal win over Angelique Kerber. Halep, of course, went three sets once again in Saturday night’s championship against Caroline Wozniacki–erasing a set deficit before ultimately storming into the lead with a break for 4-3 in the third. Two games from her biggest career triumph, however, Halep dropped the last three games and fell 7-6(2), 3-6, 6-4.
But it’s not like Halep lost the final as much as Wozniacki won it. And it’s not like a break advantage meant anything in that contest–breaks, after all, just about came left and right. There was nothing to be ashamed about after this latest slam final setback; not by any stretch of the imagination.
“I think was different (compared to the last two slam finals),” Halep commented. “I played better. I didn’t move as I wanted because I couldn’t. But the game was okay. The mental part was okay. So I think I have improved a lot this tournament. I’m leaving Australia with many good thoughts and many positive things because what I’ve done these two weeks I never did, me, in the past. So it’s okay.
“I felt ready. But the body was not ready because I had so many long matches. The muscles were tired. The feet were not good enough. But mentally I was ready. I feel that I can face any challenge. I can play against anyone. I can win against anyone. But just sometimes is not how you want because you cannot physically do it.”
Mentally, Halep is finally ready. If she wasn’t prior to her arrival at Melbourne Park, she is now. If that kind of navigation through a seven-match gauntlet proved anything, it’s that a Grand Slam title is in her future–quite possibly in her immediate future.
For Halep, the 2018 Australian Open set the table. Now she’s ready to eat.