Nadal, Halep win French Open titles

By Nate Williams

PARIS — Rafael Nadal continued his dominance of the French Open with a 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 win over Austria’s Dominic Thiem to claim a record-extending 11th Roland Garros title in Paris on Sunday.

The defending clay court king gained a quick break for a 2-0 lead in the opening seven minutes but Thiem, who was competing in his first major final, broke straight back to keep level with Nadal until a string of errors while serving at 4-5 conceded the primary advantage.

Nadal pulled away in the second set by making another early break count with a strong serve and his trademark ferocious forehand as Thiem began to crumble under relentless pressure.

The now 17-time grand slam champion Nadal had a brief medical scare in the final set, but after Thiem saved four match points, a long return settled the Court Philippe Chatrier contest after two hours and 42 minutes.

“In my career, I achieved much more than what I ever dreamed,” said Nadal.

“That feeling in that moment was difficult to describe it. Very emotional for me.”

If anyone had a chance to ruin Nadal’s coronation, Thiem couldn’t have been better placed to do so.

The 24-year-old world No. 8 was the only man to beat Nadal on his favorite clay surface this year with a quarter-final victory in Madrid before the French grand slam and also had a previous victory in Rome last season.

However, this was against a different Nadal, in his 24th slam final and at a place where only two men have beaten him over the five-set format in his entire career.

“He was playing very well, I think, and there is a reason why he won 11 times here,” Thiem said. “It’s definitely one of the best things somebody ever achieved in sport.”

Despite conceding a 2-0 deficit so quickly, Thiem masterminded points in the following game by whipping rapid forehand winners to restore parity and kept the Spaniard at bay as he spotted some weaknesses in Nadal’s stronghold.

Nadal had been in the final of the hallowed red clay event 10 times before but he revealed a human side with a group of weak returns from misfired forehands, which Thiem pounced on with point-killing blows to remain even at 4-4.

“The first set, 4-all, it was vital to save this game with my serve,” Nadal commented. “Because normally in the 5-4, if I could put the balls inside and make adequate decisions, it was a very good opportunity for me.”

Nadal turned Thiem’s strength against him as a premature pull on his forehand saw the world number one secure the first set.

The 32-year-old veteran needed five break points to cancel out Thiem in the second set and a thunderous backhand stroke saw him surge 3-0 ahead before another masterful stroke on the line doubled his tally.

It was a tall ask for Thiem to take the battle the full distance as Nadal had never been beaten in a major final with a two-set advantage.

Even though the trainer was called to examine a wrist and finger complaint after a break to lead 2-1 in the third, Nadal never wavered.

“I felt something to my hand,” he said. “And then the finger, I don’t know, was very tight like this. I couldn’t move the finger.

“But after that, the things went better and better.”

The Spaniard dominated his opponent by sharpening up his forehand and unleashing wicked winners before another break of serve meant the red carpet was ready to be rolled out at 5-2.

His loyal subjects on Chatrier held their breath with each swing as Thiem defiantly saved four championship points but on the fifth, a quick-fire serve dispatched the challenger.

The Coupe des Mousquetaires was retained and Nadal could return to the French throne for an 11th term.

“I add one more Grand Slam. Seventeen is an amazing number. I feel very lucky for all of the things that have happened to me,” said Nadal.

Only Bjorn Borg, with six titles, comes close to matching him in Paris in the open era. Max Decuguis won eight French Open titles between 1903 and 1914.

Nadal’s latest triumph also moves him to within three of Roger Federer’s leading 20 grand slam titles.

Halep win first Grand Slam title

Romania’s Simona Halep defeated American Sloane Stephens 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 in the women’s final at the French Open on Saturday to claim her maiden Grand Slam title.

Stephens outlasted the world No. 1 Halep in lengthy rallies, where she controlled a majority of the points, to force errors and take a first set advantage.

However, Halep, who has sealed her first major honor at the fourth attempt, roared back in a remarkable turnaround from 2-0 down in the second set to win 12 of the next 15 games to grasp the title that has eluded her for so long.

“I was dreaming for this moment since I was 14 and I am so happy because I wanted this first trophy to be here in France,” said Halep, loser in two previous Roland Garros finals.

“I wish to play another final here because this court is my favorite one.”

Despite defeat, Stephens will enter the world rankings at a career-high No. 4 on Monday.

Halep, who reached the French showpiece in 2014 and 2017, was the crowd favorite from the start but it was her American opposite who dominated the early exchanges and moved ahead.

The Romanian was staring at a fourth major final defeat as she conceded an early second set break to Stephens, who won the U.S. Open last year, but then turned the match on its head.

Backed by a deafening soundtrack of “Si-mon-a, Si-mon-a,” she completed the match with a triumphant serve in two hours and three minutes.

Halep becomes only the second Romanian woman to win a Grand Slam title since Virginia Ruzici’s French Open success in 1978.

Before proceedings began, the tournament organizers paid tribute to a former great of the sport with a one-minute applause in memory of Maria Bueno, who died after a struggle with mouth cancer at the age of 78.

Beuno was Brazil’s most successful female tennis player with 19 major titles in the 1950’s and 60’s.

Going into the grand finale, Halep had won her four previous meetings with Stephens.

The reigning U.S. Open champion Stephens on the other hand had never lost a tournament final with six successes, and it was looking likely she was going to claim a seventh after a slow start from Halep.

A mistimed strike and a net error from the 26-year-old conceded the first break.

With her back against a wall under heavy fire, Halep showed tremendous defense in a scintillating melee as she returned a triple of winning attempts from Stephens but was unable to prevent her opponent from gaining a 4-1 lead.

Stephens looked in confident form and displayed the kind of ruthless power that has seen her win all of her previous finals on the WTA circuit and a desperately wide backhand swing from Halep capped the first set.

However, Halep was determined not to let Stephens have any more easy chances as she stormed back with two breaks to lead 4-2 — only to immediately give back the break as Stephens levelled at 4-4.

But with the echo of her name ringing from the stands in support of her courageous comeback, she broke serve for a third time to force a deciding set.

Halep summoned all of her skill and will to completely out-play Stephens, with a stiff backhand as her weapon of choice to surge 3-0 in front before a determined net point winner earned a double break.

Stephens managed to hold a single service game to delay celebrations but all eyes were then on Halep as a netted return from a solid serve confirmed that her wait to be crowned a grand slam champion was finally over.