An hour and a half ago I thought I would be writing a far different piece than this one, and you could tell Simona Halep was beginning to think so too. Sloane Stephens was everywhere; she was blending her easy power with newfound patience and movement, traits of hers that improve every time she plays. As a result, Simona Halep—the world’s top-ranked tennis player, a three-time major finalist and conspicuously a zero-time major winner—was down a set and a break. Of the many divergent stories that might have emerged about her in the aftermath of this match, one in particular looked increasingly plausible.
“Maybe I was not ready to win it,” Halep said a year ago, holding a fragile smile together, standing on the makeshift stage after losing the 2017 French Open final against Jelena Ostapenko. The world agreed with her. Tennis is singularly but poetically cruel in the way it makes its runners-up stand there and give speeches on court just minutes after failing the defining tests of their careers. So often this is where the narrative fodder comes from, these vulnerable moments forcibly staged for public consumption. We had ours: Simona was our Player Who Could Not Win, a stigma only solidified when she later lost the 2018 Australian Open to the other player with that moniker, Caroline Wozniacki.
Losing, here, once again. It is possible to want something so badly that the sheer energy spent desiring it places it further away. Halep looked nervy and tight, despite how hard she was running, despite the way she tried to meet Sloane Stephens’s force with power of her own. It wasn’t working. Stephens’s comparative position here was enviable: young and playing free-flowing tennis brimming with even more potential, having already won a major title of her own, matched up against an opponent forced to grapple with the weight of possessing none of those qualities. We could see—can still see—where Sloane was headed. We were staring at it right alongside where Halep had already failed to go.
But then came the tennis itself, which over the next hour would feel like a perfect metonymy of everything that makes Simona Halep who she is.
In a word, she's a technician. She’s got the physical strokes and the fitness, yes, but what has her at number one in the world is that she solves problems. She tweaks things that stop working and shifts tactics when needed, and has a versatile game that can keep up with her brain. This vibrant tennis mind has made her prior losses in championship matches all the more excruciating to watch—no one is more acutely aware than she is of what’s happening to her when things start slipping away. But this trait also leads to today when, down 2-0 in the second set and desperate to avoid the looming point of no return, Simona Halep changed course.
Instead of trying to match power with power, she started varying the trajectory of her strokes, opting for slower, more looping shots; instead of trying to find angles that only opened up her own court, she started hitting deep down the middle, forcing Stephens to make more deliberate choices of her own. And like that the deficit disappeared, and the rhythm of the points became hers, and suddenly we were watching a quintessential Simona Halep match instead of a Sloane Stephens shotmaking clinic.
The change in tactics was enough, at least, to do the most devastating thing you can do to an opposing tennis player, which is remind them that they’re playing tennis. Stephens seemed newly aware of the moment toward the end of the second set and into the third. This was no longer her coronation; it had become what it had always been, a clay-court match against the best player in the world at her most desperate. Remember the tight rope? Just a few games from the finish line, Sloane Stephens was coerced into looking down.
The score says 6-1 but that third set felt far closer, even as Halep pulled away. We had seen her almost win before, after all. The last set felt like a blur of counterpunches, directional changes, and long rallies that stretched the players sideways and forward—in other words, a Halep match. In that last service game, as she punched an easy overhead into the front row to get herself to match point, I found myself thinking that this is what revision looks like. This is how you rewrite the sentences about you that have taken on a life of their own.
“I felt I could not breathe anymore,” Halep would say about those final moments. “I just did not want to repeat what happened last year.”
She didn’t; a point later it was done. We didn’t get the immediate tears I thought we might, after all this; I imagine in a moment like that it’s hard to find body language that makes all that you’re feeling accessible to others. Probably better that way. Tennis has cruelly asked that of her too many times before.
Simona Halep is no longer our Best Loser. Looking at the story of these years in totality, I think that maybe she never was—she simply hadn’t gotten to the winning yet. But she has now, and I expect we will see happier, freer tennis from the world’s best player as summer marches on. That in itself is a small joy worth holding.