French Open 2014 Women's Final: Keys That Will Decide Sharapova vs. Halep

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French Open 2014 Women's Final: Keys That Will Decide Sharapova vs. Halep
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Who will come out on top in the French Open final?

Though chaos threw off much of the women's bracket, two of pre-tournament favorites have emerged to create an intriguing French Open final.  Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep have stood out as two of the tournament's best storylines, the former for her grittiness in multiple three-set matches and the latter for her grace in cruising through the bracket thus far.

Therefore, Sharapova vs. Halep matches the best clay-court player of the past few years versus the top performer of this tournament.  The two met in the Madrid final just two weeks ago, where Sharapova downed Halep in a tightly contested three-set match.

Based on their form this tournament, it appears we are in for a Roland Garros thriller.  Let's break down how each player matches up against the other and determine what each player must execute to take home the French Open crown.

 

Sharapova: First-Serve Percentage

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For all her power, Maria Sharapova's problem has been merely getting into the point.  Sharapova was fortunate to defeat Eugenie Bouchard in the semifinals after losing the first set then losing serve with a chance to win the second set.  The No. 7 seed only served at a 57 percent clip in the first set, and she compounded those problems by losing a whopping 75 percent of her second serves.

It's a testament to her resilience that she was able to win the third set 6-2.  Even while clearly battling her own serve, Sharapova's outstanding defense and return game carried her to victory:

Against the rock-solid Halep, grit might not earn Sharapova her second French Open title.  Though she has won 19 consecutive three-set matches on clay, determination will mean little if her service games allow Halep to dictate the match.  As USA Today's Douglas Robson opined, Halep will likely try to act as the aggressor in order to catalyze the upset:

Simona Halep's best chance against favorite Maria Sharapova in Saturday's French Open final is to stay aggressive and never let up.

"If she goes backwards in the court she will have no chance," said Halep's coach, Wim Fissette. "Maria will kill her."

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Sharapova holds a massive size advantage, which should theoretically allow her to overpower Halep in relatively quick rallies.  With 53 wins in her past 57 clay-court matches, she has proven that her mental fortitude allows her to play an efficient style conducive to the surface.

Still, despite a 3-0 record against the Romanian, Sharapova must play her best match of the tournament.  The Russian star has cut things close throughout the fortnight and comes into the final with less margin for error than many anticipate.

 

Halep: Handle the Pressure

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The fourth-seed has been the tournament's most dominant player, having won all 12 sets she has played thus far.  Indeed, going into the semifinal against Andrea Petkovic, Halep had breezed through her previous five matches in just over an hour on average:

However, Sharapova is an entirely different animal than any other opponent Halep has faced thus far.  Though she is a terrific defensive player with superior movement skills, Sharapova has more power than nearly any other player on tour.  Halep needs to take the offensive at some point in the match.

Consequently, Halep must remain poised to execute such a bold strategy.  The Romanian enters her first Grand Slam final against a four-time major champion who has played in nine such finals.  As SI.com's Jon Wertheim suggests, how Halep handles the moment may determine whether or not she has a realistic shot at victory:

Much of the final will depend on how Halep, the Grand Slam final rookie, handles the occasion. Time and again, we've seen first-timers simply getting beaten by the occasion as well as the player on the other side of the net. (Most recently, Dominika Cibulkova at the Australian Open in January.) Then again, sometimes the newcomers seize the moment unexpectedly. Ten years ago at Wimbledon, a leggy Russian teenager reached her first Grand Slam final and stared down the mighty Serena Williams. She was uncowed by the moment, and her bold ball striking was jarring to the champion. That arriviste was ... Maria Sharapova.

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At 22 years old, Halep is not necessarily one of the tour's youngest stars, but she is still ascending as a player.  Typically, the growth curve entails a tough loss after a deep Grand Slam run, a scenario she faces now.

To leapfrog that step, Halep will need to maintain the same form that she has shown throughout the tournament.  Her A-game is clearly enough to give her an excellent chance at victory.  If the moment is not too big for Halep, it seems safe to expect the two to reprise their recent three-set encounter.

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