Sloane Stephens is a genius. That word, in its purest, oldest form, means to beget; to bring something new into being. In the context of sports or creative endeavors, it is applied to those who are not only imbued with uncommon skill and talent, but who also use their abilities to create something never before seen in their field.
The way Stephens moves on a tennis court is genius. Without ever looking like she is trying too hard, or moving too fast, she simply appears wherever the ball has been struck. It is as though she has unlocked a secret form of trans-dimensional travel and put her discovery to use on the tennis court. In her run to the US Open title in 2017, and during her fortnight in Paris this spring, her movement has been married to her ever-present self-belief. She knows that there are other players who can move more quickly than she, and who can hit the ball harder, but none can do what she does when she is in full flow. The serenity of her confidence and the smooth, easy way she covers unthinkable distances in the blink of an eye, give Stephens an air of complete calm when she is on court.
Simona Halep is a different kind of champion. Halep’s run to this final has been just as commanding as Stephens’ but the manner of her victories and her personality could not be more different. The way she dispatched Garbine Muguruza in the semifinals was a particularly ruthless display of the kind of gutsy tennis that could win the Romanian her first grand slam title. Halep, however, will be playing herself as much as Stephens when she takes to the court on Saturday.
Halep is a genius of insecurity; much more a sweaty-browed, half-deaf Beethoven than a child prodigy Motzart. Her greatest rival has always been herself. Her penchant for a negative inner monologue came to the surface most strongly in the quarterfinals of the Miami Open in 2017. Reflecting on the intense conversation she had on court with her coach after wasting opportunities to win the match, she said: “All the time on court…I put myself very down during the match. I don’t have [any problems] with anyone; it’s just my personality to be hard on myself.”
That match was a turning point for Halep. Since then she has gone from a player who came up short in clutch moments, to one who regularly grinds out tough wins. She played well throughout the rest of 2017 and was rewarded with the number one ranking. Her two three set victories en route to the final of the 2018 Australian Open, — one concluded 15-13, another 9-7 — fully demonstrated her newfound mental fortitude. Her loss in the final of that tournament landed her in the hospital with dehydration. The message was clear: nothing but physical breakdown could keep her from fighting to the last drop of sweat.
Halep has not been perfect this year. She still throws in the occasional bad match. The most recent example of this was her 6-0 6-4 loss to Elina Svitolina in Rome. But that version of Halep isn’t the one who will show up on Saturday. When she walks on court to face Sloane Stephens, she will be the steel-willed woman who has fought her entire career against uncertainty. In an alchemical process, Halep has mixed her anxieties so thoroughly with her desire to win that she has forged a lethal new mentality, one that will accept nothing short of a first grand slam title.
When Stephens and Halep meet, genius will be present on both sides of the net in different forms. Both women have produced extraordinary tennis over the last two weeks and both add something new to the sport. Fine mental margins will separate them. Despite Halep’s 5-2 lead in the pair’s head to head, Stephens is the slight favorite since she is a proven performer in finals and has already won a grand slam. Halep’s will to win and mental strength, however, will see her through to victory.
Expect exceptional play from both women but Halep, the faster (if less magical) mover, to prevail in two tight sets.