French Open 2014 Women's Final: Sharapova vs. Halep Preview and Prediction
Sharapova, who earns more money in endorsements than any woman in sports, has four Grand Slam titles. Halep, although ranked four spots higher than Sharapova, is relatively unknown outside of the tennis world. This will be her first Slam final.
It's the ninth Grand Slam final for Sharapova and her third consecutive at Roland Garros. Tagged the "Queen of Clay," she has played this tournament more like a knight, fighting her way through battles to capture a throne.
Meanwhile, Halep is more like the commoner who is slowly climbing her way toward nobility. She didn't arrive on the scene as a teen sensation as did Princess Sharapova. Halep strove through smaller tournaments to rise up the ranks.
Born without the gift of height and natural power, Halep has mastered her skills. Tennis coaches around the world must be pleased to watch a player who executes fundamentally sound tennis.
In a contest that pits power against precision and queen versus commoner, expect a royal showdown for the French Open crown.
Who Has the Historic Edge?
As is commonly the case when royalty takes on a commoner, Sharapova has never lost to Halep. She is 3-0 against the Romanian.
Their first two matches were on hard courts, and Sharapova won in straight sets. The most recent match and only meeting on clay was last month in the Madrid Open final. It went three sets.
Halep jumped out and shocked Sharapova, taking the first set 6-1. Sharapova stormed back, as she has during the French Open, and took the final sets 6-2, 6-3.
Halep appeared to take her foot off the gas in the second set. She played pensively, and Sharapova made her pay.
How Has Sharapova Looked so Far at Roland Garros?
Sharapova's biggest obstacle to gaining another French Open title was removed in the second round when Garbine Muguruza ousted defending champion Serena Williams.
With her tormentor out of the way, Sharapova had a clearer path to the crown. But before her stood a dangerous veteran in Samantha Stosur and a couple of next-generation superstars.
In each of those matches, Sharapova lost the first set. Against Stosur and Muguruza, she cruised through the third set.
Eugenie Bouchard, the heir apparent to the endorsement queen title, gave Sharapova a tough fight in the semifinals. The Canadian took advantage of Sharapova's shaky start and won the first set 6-4. In the second set, Sharapova got off to a 4-1 lead as Bouchard battled nerves and unforced errors.
Bouchard fought back to even the match at 5-5. However, Sharapova turned up the volume on her ball striking, as well as her shrieking. Both seemed to throw off Bouchard. The 20-year-old made untimely poor decisions that cost her games and ultimately the match.
How Has Halep Looked so Far at Roland Garros?
Halep has yet to drop a set in the 2014 French Open.
In what was considered a key matchup between two up-and-comers, she dismissed Sloane Stephens 6-4, 6-3. She later defeated 2009 French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-2, 6-2 in the quarterfinals in little more than an hour.
She played Andrea Petkovic in the semifinals. Both women were making their Grand Slam semifinals debut. However, Petkovic seemed more overwhelmed by the occasion. After some sloppy hitting and poor shot selection, she found herself down two breaks to Halep before many fans could find their seats.
Halep took the first set, 6-2, counterpunching Petkovic into frustration. Although Petkovic found her game in the second set, Halep continued to dictate play. She eked out the set in a tiebreaker, setting up a rematch with Sharapova.
She's played efficient tennis, averaging fewer than 17 unforced errors per match.
Biggest X-Factors in the Final
How each player handles pressure will be a major factor. An early lead by Sharapova could spell trouble for Halep, who has not had to come from behind during this tournament.
Sharapova, however, will be more at ease.
The player who can establish her game first can control the tempo. Can Sharapova come out smacking the ball and Halep around? Or can Halep outsmart Sharapova with precise placement as she did in the first set in Madrid?
Another key will be nerves. Halep has shown that she can crack under pressure. She served two double faults when trying to close out a match against Kuznetsova. She admitted to being "very nervous" at the Australian Open, per Kate Battersby of RolandGarros.com.
Unless the opponent is Serena Williams, Sharapova plays through nervous tension. She's among the best at erasing bad points from memory. That includes double faults.
Speaking of double faults, if Sharapova starts spraying serves, Halep could pull off the upset.
Sharapova Will Win If...
Sharapova needs to serve well enough to put pressure on Halep. Although she often plays her way out of trouble after double faults, they are easy points. Sometimes the gimmes invite her opponents back into matches.
Halep will have Madrid fresh in her mind, so another slow start could prove catastrophic for Sharapova. She also has to keep the unforced errors to a minimum.
But let's be real: At this stage in her career, she is not going to make adjustments. Her plan is to hit hard, and if that doesn't work, hit harder and scream louder.
That approach has worked for years. Why change it?
Halep Will Win If...
Halep plays a beautiful all-court game. It helped her win the French Open as a junior. She'll need it to fend off Her Highness, Sharapova, ruler of the clay.
If she does get ahead, she has to be ready for the Sharapova supercharge package. That's when the Russian increases the intensity, screaming and fist pumps. She pulls out this package when she's desperate.
The final in Madrid was the first time Halep had to face a desperate Sharapova. The rise in decibels and the duration of the screams can catch younger players off guard.
Unlike Bouchard, who tried her own gamesmanship against Sharapova, Halep must stay focused and concentrate on her game. She must keep the unforced errors down.
Sharapova's big-swinging, error-prone, double-faulting style always presents opportunities. Halep has to take advantage of them and avoid costly mishits like those made by Bouchard.
Sharapova is often called mentally tough. Yet you have to wonder why that toughness never translates to focus on her serve, the most important stroke of the game.
She had nine double faults in her semifinals match and eight in the quarterfinals. She's giving away entire games in double faults. Yet here she is, back in her third straight French Open final.
More than mentally tough, she is stubborn.
She refuses to go away. A loss to Bouchard would have meant dropping out of the top 10. No way was Sharapova ready to join the ranks of the underclass. She loves life at the top.
She rules the court as if it is her domain and treats opponents as trespassers. She'll literally turn her back on them, whether she's serving or not. She struts around like a queen. Why not? On clay, record-wise, she is as close to Rafael Nadal as any woman on tour.
Still, Halep is no slouch on clay either. It will be a tough three-setter, but Queen Sharapova will regain her crown.