French Open women's final preview: Maria Sharapova vs. Simona Halep
PARIS -- When Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep step on Court Philippe Chatrier for Saturday's French Open final (starting at 9 a.m. ET, airing on NBC), we'll be faced with the battle of The Known vs. The Unknown.
We know what to expect from Sharapova. Since winning Wimbledon as a 17-year-old, she has emerged as one of the most recognizable faces in sports and an accomplished champion, completing her career Grand Slam at Roland Garros two years ago.
In an impressive twist in an improbable career, we've actually become accustomed to seeing Sharapova grinding away (and winning) on Chatrier. She's competing in her third straight French Open final on Saturday, her ninth Grand Slam singles final of her career. Since the beginning of 2012 Sharapova has owned the clay, going 53-4 and winning six of seven titles on the surface.
Perhaps most importantly, we know she will fight in this final. Sharapova will not succumb to nerves or be awed by the occasion. Not now, not after battling through three consecutive come-from-behind wins to get here.
"I've had some really tough matches where I've been pushed," Sharapova said. "In the last three matches especially. A lot of times in my career I've felt better coming off those matches knowing that I might not have played my best tennis or just didn't feel as great as maybe I should have or done the right things, but I came through and I'm finding myself playing for another major."
In her last three matches, Sharapova has lost the first set and come within a handful of points away from losing. Yet in every match, she steeled herself to run away with the victory. Against Sam Stosur she won the second set 6-4 and won the third set 6-0. Muguruza fared no better, losing the final two sets 7-5, 6-1. And Bouchard? You guessed it -- 7-5, 6-2. She's been virtually unbeatable on this surface the last two years, losing only to Serena Williams and Ana Ivanovic. She's 40-1 when she wins the first set at the French Open, and she's on a 19-match winning streak in three-setters on clay.
That's an ominous string of results for Halep, the unknown in this final, to face.
Before 2013, the 22-year-old Romanian had never been past the second round of a major. Just 12 months ago, she was ranked No. 57 and with no titles to her name, and crashed out in the first round of the French Open.
But Halep has improved by leaps and bounds in the last year. On Monday she will rise to a career-high No. 3 in the ATP rankings behind Serena Williams and Li Na. She now has seven titles under her belt -- her biggest victory being the Qatar Open in February. Now she's into her first career Grand Slam final.And she's not sure how to deal with it.
"I cannot say how I will feel Saturday, I cannot now," she said. "I don't know how is it to play a final of a Grand Slams."
On paper Halep can absolutely beat Sharapova. To call her a counter-puncher would be a disservice to her game, which is built on intelligent aggression. She hugs the baseline, takes the ball early, and before you know it her opponent is being run ragged from side to side. Her game is subtle, and she opens angles beautifully. At 5-foot-6 she doesn't have the luxury of pure power, so there's never that single shot that makes you gasp. What she does have is a keen tennis brain -- coaches should be urging their young players to watch her.
But Halep's chances in the final may be handicapped by her nerves. She freaked out in her first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the Australian Open in January and lost 6-3, 6-0 to Dominika Cibulkova. She's handled her nerves better at Roland Garros -- she hasn't lost a set in the tournament -- but admitted they crept in again as she tried to close out her semifinal match against Andrea Petkovic.
Sharapova is 3-0 against Halep, but their most recent match in the French Open final went a full three sets, and like we've now come to expect, Sharapova came back from a set down to win 1-6, 6-2, 6-3.
"I think she has a very solid game," Sharapova said, who praised Halep's consistency from tournament to tournament. "She is a very physical opponent. Always a very physical match against her, and you must be ready to play however long it takes to win the match against her."
Highlights from their Madrid encounter below:
"Yeah, I don't know how I have to play to beat Maria," Halep said, laughing. "Or if I can beat Maria, better to say. But I have to take that revenge. I will fight for this one. I played a really good match in Madrid first set. I started really well. I was very fast on court, and I opened the angles very well. But she came back very, very well and she hit strong, stronger than me at that moment. Now, I have to be aggressive again, to play fast, like my style, and to stay there with the nerves."
Halep is trying to become just the second Romanian player to ever win a Grand Slam following in the footsteps of her manager, Virginia Ruzici, who won the French Open in 1978. She is also bidding to become just the second player born in the 1990s to win a major, following in the footsteps of Petra Kvitova, who won Wimbledon in 2011. Since Kvitova's win, eight of the last ten majors have been won by women aged 25 or older (Victoria Azarenka, 24, accounts for the two that weren't). Does Sharapova have any extra motivation to keep the trend toward veteran domination going? Yes and no.
"Do I want to give them the chance to go further in the tournament? Absolutely not," Sharapova said. "But not because I want to prove something or show them that they're not the next generation. They're playing great tennis. But because I want to be the winner of that particular match. I want to go further. No matter if I'm a veteran or -- I don't care what generation I'm in. I work too much to just let the match go because they're part of a newer generation."
Halep is the higher seed, but she says she'll play with nothing to lose.
"She's very tough player, so will be a tough match. I will do everything, and I will try to stay relaxed and to hit, to play my game. Because if I play my game relaxed and with pleasure, to be aggressive and to play fast, I think I have chances."
Prediction: Sharapova in three sets.