Simona Halep to face Sloane Stephens in French Open final

Simona Halep has made no secret about how keen she is to land a first grand slam title, and her team is certainly doing all they can to help the Romanian.

Ahead of her blockbuster semifinal at the French Open against 2016 winner Garbine Muguruza, her coach Darren Cahill stayed up late scouting.

“I was up until 3 in the morning watching all of their matches last night,” Cahill told CNN.

It paid off, as Halep made a second straight final on the clay at Roland Garros and retained her No. 1 ranking at Muguruza’s expense with a 6-1 6-4 victory Thursday in Paris.

Cahill is widely regarded as one of the top coaches in tennis, his past charges including Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt. The Australian was chuffed as he chatted in the player restaurant but not ecstatic. He knows there is still a match to come, and a massive one, against 10th-seed Sloane Stephens.

Stephens won the all-American duel in the second semifinal on Court Philippe-Chatrier, claiming her sixth set in as many tries against her compatriot and friend, Madison Keys. Last year during the French Open while recovering from foot surgery, Stephens went to a wedding in Ireland.

Two months into her comeback, she lifted the trophy at the US Open by downing Keys.

And just like in September, Stephens put down a marker by breaking early Thursday and never relinquished that advantage in her 6-4 6-4 triumph.

Impressive feat

Other than the legendary Williams sisters, Stephens became the first American to make the final at the French Open — faster surfaces have generally suited North Americans — since Jennifer Capriati in 2001.

Halep owns a 5-2 record against Stephens — winning four straight — with her ranking and clay-court pedigree understandably making her the favorite in Saturday’s title decider.

But Stephens does have that grand slam title in her pocket and usually produces her finest tennis on the big stages. Roland Garros certainly counts in that regard, even if it is the most intimate of the four majors. The 25-year-old has won all six finals she has contested.

Stephens’ post US Open woes — losing eight in a row — are a distant memory.

“I think life came at me fast after the US Open,” Stephens, the Miami Open champion in March, succinctly put it.

Halep, meanwhile, has succumbed in all three of her grand slam finals, each in three sets including twice at the French Open.

“I have two more days until I will play the final, so I will stay chill,” Halep. “I will relax. And then we will see what is going to happen Saturday, but for sure I will fight for every ball.”

She added later: “I lost three times until now and no one died, so it will be okay. But I will be, I think, more confident, because I have a lot of experience.”

Whatever happens, expect some lengthy rallies. Halep and Stephens are two of the top movers in the game.

Turnaround from Cincinnati

Although Halep improved to 2-0 against Muguruza on clay, the last time they played, on hard courts in Cincinnati in August, she tallied one game.

It led Halep to apologize to her fans, and she has many. Last year Halep ended Agnieszka Radwanska’s six-year reign as the WTA’s fan favorite.

Cahill insists Halep won’t be thinking about her past near misses in grand slam finals, the latest coming in January at the Australian Open when she let a break lead slip at 4-3 in the third against Caroline Wozniacki.

Twelve months ago at Roland Garros, a free swinging Jelena Ostapenko overturned a set and 3-0 deficit against the 26-year-old.

“I would say the loss she had last year here was a bit more gut wrenching than the one she had in Australia,” said Cahill. “She wants to make amends and she’ll be focused to do that and won’t be thinking of last year’s final. The only thing she’ll be thinking about it is the opponent on the other side of the net.

“I’m really proud of her. Coming in here, there’s a bit of pressure on her obviously — this is her best chance, always at the French Open, to play her best tennis and make another final.

“And today, Simona was good enough to go out and execute a bit of a different game plan.”

When he reviewed Halep’s matches against Muguruza in Stuttgart and in the Fed Cup in 2015, Cahill said the world No. 3 was able to “dominate the rallies, and it starts with the first balls.”

On Thursday, Halep pounced on her first ball returning the Muguruza serve, claiming 56% of return points. Halep led that category entering the year’s second major of players who have played at least 15 matches, though was at 49.7%. For her part, Muguruza felt she didn’t serve well.

‘Had to be aggressive’

Halep also struck more winners than power-player Muguruza, 16 to 14.

“I knew that I had to be aggressive like her,” said Halep.

Muguruza hadn’t dropped a set en route to the semifinals, coming off a dismantling of two-time champion Maria Sharapova on Wednesday. Muguruza got herself back into the match in the second set, but surrendered a 4-2 lead.

“Simona was all over the place, very aggressive,” Sam Sumyk, Muguruza’s coach, told CNN a few moments after congratulating Cahill. “She had every answer pretty much so I think she deserved it.

“(Muguruza) could have also done things a bit better here and there, but if I look at the match, the best player won.”

That applied to the second semifinal.

Keys’ radar was off at the US Open in the contest that lasted 61 minutes. It was still off on the clay, with the 13th seed committing 41 unforced errors.

They hugged when it ended and Stephens applauded as her pal made her way off center court.

“Obviously making the semis and finals, there is not much more you can ask for in a player,” said Stephens. “And I think I have done really well, but I’d like to keep going.”

So, of course, would Halep.