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2014 French Open: The Women’s Singles Final, Simona Halep vs Maria Sharapova

Whereas one player can establish herself as the best clay court player in the post-Justine Henin tennis landscape, another can cap off a terrific 12-month breakthrough and ascension to the tennis elite with one of tennis’s ultimate prizes, the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.  The BadManBureau is here to provide insight on the women’s singles final from a historic Roland Garros.

(4) Simona Halep vs (7) Maria Sharapova, By the Numbers

Rankings—Current/Projected Finalist/Projected Winner

Simona Halep—4/3/3

Maria Sharapova—8/6/5

Head-to-Head: Halep 0-3 Sharapova

Last Meeting: 2014 Madrid Final, Sharapova wins 1-6, 6-2, 6-3

Maria Sharapova defeated Simona Halep a month ago in Madrid. (Source: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images Europe)

How Halep Got Here (Opponent’s Ranking in Parentheses)

1st Round—defeated Alisa Kleybanova (87) 6-0, 6-2

2nd Round—defeated Heather Watson (92) 6-2, 6-4

3rd Round—defeated Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor (55) 6-3, 6-0

4th Round—15-seed Sloane Stephens (19) 6-4, 6-3

Quarterfinals—27-seed Svetlana Kuznetsova (28) 6-2, 6-2

Semifinals—28-seed Andrea Petkovic (27) 6-2, 7-6(4)

How Sharapova Got Here (Opponent’s Ranking in Parentheses)

1st Round—defeated Ksenia Pervak (156) 6-1, 6-2

2nd Round—defeated Tsvetana Pironkova (42) 7-5, 6-2

3rd Round—defeated Paula Ormaechea (75) 6-0, 6-0

4th Round—19-seed Samantha Stosur (18) 3-6, 6-4, 6-0

Quarterfinals—Garbine Muguruza (35) 1-6, 7-5, 6-1

Semifinals—18-seed Eugenie Bouchard (16) 4-6, 7-5, 6-2

After a topsy-turvy two weeks, two of the world’s best players are squaring off on Saturday for the right to be the 2014 French Open Champion.  2012 champion Maria Sharapova and world-number-four Simona Halep will play for the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.  Both players navigated through a tumultuous draw rife with upsets and have emerged as the last two women standing.  Now they will compete for one of the biggest titles in tennis as well as something much more.

 What a Maria Sharapova Win Will Mean

For Maria Sharapova, a self-proclaimed “cow on ice” early in her career, a second Roland Garros title would punctuate a career turnaround on the surface and firmly establish the Russian as the best female clay court player in the world.    From her debut season on the WTA Tour in 2003 to the end of the 2010 season, Sharapova had reached only two finals on clay (won both); however, since 2011 Maria has reached nine finals (now ten with her finals appearance at the 2014 French Open) and compiled a 7-2 record in those finals.  In fact, of Maria Sharapova’s last ten titles, eight of them have been on the dirt.  Sharapova has now reached three consecutive French Open finals, making her the first woman since the last “Queen of Clay” Justine Henin of Belgium won three straight titles in 2005-2007.  Were Maria Sharapova to claim a second Roland Garros title—where she would go 25-2 at the last four French Opens, it would certainly make her the premier player on clay, filling the void left by the aforementioned Henin.

 What a Simona Halep Win Will Mean

Simona Halep has a chance not only to put her name in the history books as a major champion but also put an exclamation point on a one-year span where the Romanian has emerged from journeywoman status known more for her breast reduction surgery to one of the best players in the world.  A year ago entering the 2013 French Open, Simona Halep was a relative unknown; she was ranked 57 in the world and had only reached three finals in her career with zero wins.  At last year’s French Open, Halep fell in the first round to Carla Suarez Navarro; she had won just one main draw match at the French Open in her career—and just one main draw match win at her last six majors.  To most tennis fans, Simona was just another face in the crowd.  Everything turned around at her next event.  At the claycourt event in Nurnberg, Germany, Simona Halep collected her first career title, defeating Andrea Petkovic (the woman she defeated in the semifinals of the 2014 French Open) in the final.  Ever since then, the Romanian has been winning matches, collecting titles, and climbing the rankings.  When most tennis fans spotted her upward trajectory late in 2013, it was dismissed as Halep was only winning at small events.  But she kept winning into 2014, and should she add the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen to her quickly-growing trophy collection, everyone will realize how much of a real contender she is.

These two players competed for a title just less than a month ago at the Matua Madrid Open.  In that match, Simona Halep stormed out of the gate to take the first set, but Maria Sharapova turned it around and claimed the title.  In those three sets, we saw what both players needed to do in order to win.

How Simona Halep Will Win

For Simona Halep, she will need to be able to make Maria Sharapova move, particularly to the Russian’s forehand.  Though Sharapova’s forehand is her bigger weapon and more capable of generating winners, it’s also the less consistent wing and more prone to errors.  Even as she was losing the match, Simona Halep was able to win points by hitting the ball to the deuce court and forcing Sharapova to hit her forehand when not entirely stationary.  Halep also won the first set in Madrid by placing the ball extremely well.  Simona went for the lines, either hitting outright winners or forcing Maria to play defensive shots and scramble around the court.  Even in her service games, Halep began the points with deep, well-placed serves that immediately gave her an advantage in that first set.  If the Romanian wants to take home her first major title, she will have to replicate that kind of play on Saturday.

 How Maria Sharapova Will Win

Maria Sharapova won the title in Madrid and has reached her third consecutive French Open final in a similar manner.  She’s added more variety into her game, which has suited her well on clay courts.  Where once Maria tried to overpower her opponents by hitting every shot hard and flat, she’s now added more spin, particularly to reduce her double fault and error counts.  Maria has still managed to hit her shots with incredible depth.  Sharapova still struggles with sequences where errors dominate her game, but on the red clay, she’s been able to adjust accordingly, as evidenced by her three consecutive come-from-behind victories in the last three rounds.  One particular tactic that worked against Halep was to make the Romanian hit a balls high to Halep’s backhand.  In the third set, Maria targeted looping shots towards Halep’s backhand, forcing Simona to hit the ball from well above her shoulders, even having to leap into the air on occasion to get the ball back.  With the ball so high, Simona Halep was incapable of generating much power or depth on her responses, allowing Sharapova to tee off on short balls.

Maria Sharapova has reached her third consecutive French Open final. (Source: Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images)

 X-Factors

There may be two big X-factors in this match, one each that could harm each competitor’s chances. On the physical side, fatigue could be an issue for Maria Sharapova.  She has had to play from behind in her last three matches, rallying from a first set deficit against Samantha Stosur, Garbine Muguruza, and Eugenie Bouchard.  Simona Halep, meanwhile, has won all six of her matches in straight sets, only being pushed in the second set against Andrea Petkovic.  In Madrid, both players did have to play their semifinal matches the day before, but whereas Maria Sharapova cruised in a little more than an hour in her semifinal, Simona Halep played a three-setter that lasted over two-and-a-half hours.  In the Madrid final, Simona attempted to blitz Maria off the court; if the Romanian was to win the title, she needed to get it done quickly before the reality of her tiredness set in.  In the first set, she was able to do just that, utilizing the aforementioned game—and a slew of Sharapova errors—to take a commanding 6-1 first set, but she couldn’t keep it up, and as the points got longer and Maria’s groundstrokes took their toll, Simona Halep found herself in a losing position.  This time, the tables are turned: Simona Halep is the fresher player and Maria Sharapova has had to spend much more time on court in recent rounds.  Though both players have had a full day’s rest before the final, the physical toll of three long matches this week could be a factor in Sharapova trying the same tactic in getting out of the gates quickly before Halep can adjust and extend points.

Simona Halep can cap off a year-long breakout with her first major title. (Source: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)

The other X-factor in this match is Halep’s mental preparedness for this final.  Simona Halep has improved in the last twelve months in her mental game, which has helped her win titles and reach the Top 5.  Still, there’s nothing quite like the final of a major.  History can be reached; her name can be etched forever in the halls of Roland Garros as a champion.  Personal glory can be attained; a victory could very well turn her into a national figure or hero in her native Romania.  Career-defining moments can be made; with a win, it could be the start of years of top-tier play and contender status as well as a springboard for greater things like her opponent after Wimbledon in 2004, but with a loss, it could devastate and send her to an early retirement as pressure, doubt, and the various ailments of the tour creep in, similar to former French Open finalist Dinara Safina.  Simona Halep has had more than a day to think about how her career can change with one more win, and as the packed Court Philippe Chartrier focuses their attention on her and Sharapova, there’s a chance that all of these thoughts could make Simona freeze in her tracks.  It’s happened before to many first-time major finalists in recent years; with no one else to shield the spotlight, players like Safina, Elena Dementieva, and Sabine Lisicki all—for lack of a better term—choked once the whole tennis world focused in on them.  If Simona Halep is to win her maiden major title, she’ll need to avoid the fate of so many debutantes before her and take it aggressively.

Who will win?

This is a tough match to predict simply because the supposed favorite—Maria Sharapova—has struggled in her last few matches, being pushed since the fourth round.  Meanwhile, Simona Halep has routinely dominated her opponents and should be the fresher player.  Halep remains much of an enigma to tennis fans: her rise was unexpected and her game—which combines aggressive baselining with solid counterpunching—means she can defy basic classifications.  Simona may not be all that overawed by the moment as well.  While this is her first major final, she’s played in big matches in 2014, including picking up a big title in the Middle East.  Maria Sharapova appears to put extra pressure on herself at events when she finds that Serena Williams has been knocked out.  Given she knows the head-to-head matchup against the American, she has to realize that her chances of winning majors with Serena in the way are extremely few and far between.  Now she finds herself needing to win just one more match to get her fifth major title, but Simona Halep appears to get better tournament by tournament.  Expect the first three set women’s final since 2001.  I think Simona Halep will give Maria Sharapova all she can handle, but I think in the end, Sharapova will edge the Romanian.

The BadManBureau is predicting Maria Sharapova will overcome Simona Halep and repeat her 2012 performance. (Source: Reuters)

Prediction: Maria Sharapova in three sets.

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