PARIS – It's youth vs. experience. It's upstart vs. multiple Grand Slam champion. It's under-promoted top-five player vs. the biggest superstar in women's tennis.
The question is: will the French Open women's final be a competitive, compelling match?
The answer to that question depends in large part on 22-year-old Simona Halep, who will be playing in her first career Grand Slam final.
She hasn't lost a set the entire tournament, while Maria Sharapova has had to come back from losing the first set in her last three matches.
Halep didn't exactly beat up on qualifiers in those straight-set victories. Among others, she took care of No. 15 seed Sloane Stephens, a terrific Grand Slam performer and 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, who'd been having a throwback tournament.
Their head-to-head doesn't exactly promise great things for Halep.
The Romanian's rise has been rather under the radar – especially compared to players like Stephens and French Open semifinalist Genie Bouchard, neither of whom has as impressive a resumé. Halep won six WTA Tour titles last year – six. She will be ranked No. 3 in the world whether she wins or loses the French Open final.
A year ago, she was ranked No. 57.
"I think she won six titles last year. That's pretty impressive. So obviously to be in that position, I mean, she deserves that. That's a position I want to be in, you know, so I'm gunning for that," Sharapova said. "But I think she has a very solid game. She is very physical opponent. Always a very physical match against her, and you must be ready to play however long it takes to win the match against her."
That doesn't exactly clarify what it is about Halep's tennis that has produced such good results, which was the question Sharapova was asked.
Here are some highlights of their last meeting, on a faster clay surface last month in Madrid, that Sharapova won after losing the first set in about as long as it took to type this sentence.
But in fact, it's not all that easy to pin down. Halep serves well – not incredibly well. She hits the ball hard – but not that hard. She doesn't really take the net. She's not very tall. But she moves with incredible grace and speed.
After Bouchard lost to her in Indian Wells in March, Bouchard coach Nick Saviano told me that Halep was able to take balls struck by Bouchard that normally would have an opponent in trouble, and return them far better, far deeper into the court that Bouchard could anticipate. It's a subtle thing, but for an aggressive player like Sharapova who makes her living on controlling points, putting the opponent on the defensive and putting her away, the resistance Halep puts up to her opponent executing her bread-and-butter could be the base of her on-court success. Halep can also, in turn, turn on the aggressiveness herself.
And yet, after No. 1 Serena Williams, No. 2 Li Na and No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska all exited the tournament prematurely, few if any were talking about No. 4 seed Halep as one of the new favorites for the title. Most of the talk centered around 2012 champion Sharapova.
To a large extent, that's justified. Sharapova has eight previous Grand Slam finals appearances, and has won four majors – the first at Wimbledon a decade ago, when she was just 17. She has one of each of the four Grand Slams, and is looking to start her second full set.
Here's their tale of the tape:
Halep is the first since American Lindsay Davenport to reach her first major final without losing a set. Davenport did it at the 1998 U.S. Open – and won the final in straight sets, too).
But then there is the flipside to Grand Slam final rookiedom. And, as it happens, the enduring symbol of it is at Roland Garros playing in the Legends event this week.
As we watched Natasha Zvereva and partner Jana Novotna play together on Friday against a French pair, it brought back memories of Zvereva's 1988 French Open final against one Steffi Graf.
Zvereva, now 43, was a kid of 18 when she found herself in the final 25 years ago this week. She was hardly a complete outsider; on Tour for a few years already despite her young age, she was the No. 13 seed. The Russian upset No. 2 Martina Navratilova and No. 7 Helena Sukova on her way to the final, with the loss of just one set in six matches.
It was visual evidence of what can happen when the moment is too big for you, and you just freeze up and pretty much can't even remember how to play tennis. Graf was only two years older, but she was the queen.
Halep has experienced this Slam freeze, although not on the final day. In Australia in January, she rode the wave of a sweet draw into the fourth round, defeated No 7 Jelena Jankovic there – only to falter badly against Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia in the quarterfinals. She won just three games.
"I have to be aggressive again (against Sharapova), to play fast, like my style, and to stay there with the nerves. It will be a tough moment for me. I know. I'm sure that will be," she said Thursday, after defeating Andrea Petkovic of Germany in the semi-finals. "But I have to be happy and just to enjoy. I cannot say how I will feel Saturday. I cannot know. I don't know how is it to play a final of a Grand Slam."
On Saturday, Halep will find out. If she finds it to her liking, we may have ourselves a match.