PARIS – Simona Halep had gone 0-3 in matches with a major trophy on the line before facing Sloane Stephens for the French Open title Saturday, so there was plenty to remember: what it felt like to give a lead away, to make a key mistake, to walk away with regrets.
"All the experience from those three finals that I lost ... was a positive thing," Halep said, "and gave me a little bit more power to believe."
Halep, 26, added Grand Slam trophy No. 1 to her No. 1 ranking, coming back from a set and a break down to beat Stephens 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 and win the championship at Roland Garros in a match made up of long points and momentum swings.
"That's the most important thing, that I stay there focused," said Halep, the first Romanian to win a major title since her manager, Virginia Ruzici, at the 1978 French Open. "I believed. And I never gave up."
Halep was describing this French final. She could have been speaking about her career.
Halep lost two previous finals at Roland Garros — against Maria Sharapova in 2014, then Jelena Ostapenko in 2017 despite leading by a set and 3-0 in the second. Her third runner-up finish came against Caroline Wozniacki at the Australian Open in January.
"Been kicked in the stomach a couple of times when she's had chances," said Halep's coach, Darren Cahill. "They say the destination is more beautiful if there's a bit of a bumpy road and you eventually get there. And that's what happened to her today."
Halep began slowly against Stephens, the 10th-seeded American who won her first Grand Slam title at last year's U.S. Open. Both women are adept at defense, figuring out ways to get nearly every ball back. They're also both able to switch to offense in a snap.
Those traits lent themselves to engaging exchanges of 10, 20 strokes or more.
When Halep ended a 14-stroke point by pushing a backhand wide, Stephens owned the first set. She wheeled toward her box, which included U.S. national soccer team player Jozy Altidore, and shook a fist. Not much after that, Stephens broke to begin the second set, then held for a 2-0 lead. It appeared she was on her way to improving to 7-0 in tournament finals.
And then, suddenly, everything changed. Stephens started missing. A double-fault here. A forehand into the net there. A backhand wide. Another long. Halep took 15 of 18 points and four games in a row.
Both Halep and Cahill thought Stephens looked a little gassed.
From 4-4 in the second, Halep grabbed seven games in a row to take that set and build a 5-0 edge in the third.
One key: Halep began putting a little more air under the ball, being a little less aggressive, waiting for Stephens to make mistakes. That worked. Stephens ended up with 39 unforced errors, to 13 for Halep.
"Her journey has been tough. And she had a heartbreak here last year and in Australia and all the things that have happened to her," Stephens said. "I mean, it's a great story and just a great moment for her."