Simona Halep always expected to be a Grand Slam champ, and now she is

PARIS -- Simona Halep dropped her racket the way a performer drops a microphone when no further words are necessary. She put her hands over her eyes, opened her face to the sunshine and then covered it again as if she were afraid match point would vanish like a mirage.

There were no tears Saturday afternoon, no falling to her knees, no flopping on her back to make a clay angel on the court. Happy relief flushed over Halep's cheekbones as the moment sunk in. Never mind the smothering external pressure of being the world's top-ranked player who was winless in three previous chances at a major title. She'd finally done what she expected of herself, and it felt divine.

"Being No. 1 without a Grand Slam, I always said, is not like everything, not 100 percent," Halep said, beaming at reporters after her 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 French Open final win Saturday over Sloane Stephens of the United States -- a match Halep scooped out in the second set after it looked as if her dream was circling the drain again.

A year ago, a somber Halep said she'd "felt like a spectator on the court" at Roland Garros as unseeded Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia took command midway through their final. Halep was determined to be a full participant in whatever happened this time. She slept well the night before, ate well Saturday morning and told herself everything was aligning for a breakthrough.

Still, "I had last year and this year in my mind all match," said Halep, 26.

Barely an hour in, with Stephens up a set and 2-0 in the second, Halep felt a brief downbeat of resignation: "I said, 'It's not going to happen again, but it's OK. I have just to play.' And then when I started to win games, I said that last year happened to me, same thing, I was set and a break up and I lost the match. So, I said there is a chance to come back and win it.

"I believed in that, and my game was more relaxed. I could make more things on court, and that's why I could win."

Stephens already had what Halep craved so badly, having won the 2017 US Open championship. Her animated ascent here took her three rounds deeper than she'd ever been in Paris, on what she has always said is her favorite surface. The 25-year-old American came into this tournament with a 6-0 record in championship finals and dictated her matches here with her serve and powerful, versatile all-court game.

Saturday was another step in Stephens' education, far from home, deep in the cauldron of a raucous crowd led by Romanian partisans rooting for Halep's narrative to change -- including multiple Olympic gymnastics gold medalist Nadia Comaneci.

Between Stephens' finishing ability and Halep's overdue karma, something had to give. As Halep dug in and extended rallies in the second set, Stephens seemed to flag and her errors mounted. The final string snapped in the third set with Stephens trying to stave off a break point at 0-3. Halep chased down a drop shot and reached it by stretching into a semi-split; Stephens lofted the ball back, but Halep cranked a lethal backhand winner.

"With the level of Sloane's play, Simona was having trouble finding ways to win easy points," said her coach, Darren Cahill. "In the end, that probably worked a little bit in her favor, because there was no easy way, so she had to grind for every point."

Stephens spoke with a graceful competitive edge on court after receiving the silver plate awarded to the runner-up, saying there was no one she would rather lose to than the woman at the top.

"I think she's had a tough journey," Stephens, who will rise to a career-high world No. 4 next week, said later. "I think winning here is very special for her, and I'm glad she finally got her first Slam. It's a beautiful thing, very special. No matter how hard the adversity that you go through, there is always light at the end of the tunnel, and I'm glad she finally got her light."

Her coach, Chicago-based Kamau Murray, told me he understood how hard it was for Stephens to avoid taking her hands off the wheel when she seemed to be on cruise control.

"The old Sloane was sort of indifferent to wins and losses, and the new Sloane knows that you can be proud of this result but definitely not satisfied," Murray said. "I don't think she's satisfied, I'm not satisfied, but I do think it's a step in the right direction. You get anywhere that close and it hurts."

That pain may never be completely out of mind for Halep, but it is receding and well out of sight.