Baseline Buzz: Sharapova or Halep?

Wilansky: Which, amazingly, puts her right up there in Rafa territory. Since 2005, Rafael Nadal has produced a mind-blowing 293-14 record on clay -- a 95 percent winning rate. That is, in slang parlance anyway, stupid. Whoever thought we'd be comparing Sharapova to Nadal on a clay court? Still, heading into this final, I am a little concerned about Sharapova, even though she continues to win. There are two ways to look at the fact that she's gone the distance in the past three straight matches. Either she's not quite at the top of her game or she's as determined to win as anyone in the game.

Caple: I think it's both. She has won 19 three-set matches on clay and is 19-3 in three-setters at Roland Garros. But the reason she has needed the three sets this week is that she has played poorly in the first set. Even while winning the second set against Eugenie Bouchard, she had six double faults. What has helped her win out in the end has been her opponents getting a little nervous, a little tentative. Bouchard started out very aggressive but became just a smidge defensive after that. You can't do that against Shazza. When you get her down, you can't let up. You have to go for the jugular. It will be interesting to see whether Halep can do so. She took the first set from Sharapova in their last match in Madrid but dropped the next two. And playing a Slam final is a new experience as well.

Wilansky: All good points, Jim. Nerves are the one intangible we can't account for until the final begins. But if you look at her form, Halep is the first player since Martina Hingis some 17 years ago to reach her first Grand Slam final (Aussie) without losing a set, according to the WTA. And what did Hingis do? She won the final in straight sets, crushing Mary Pierce -- a Frenchwoman. The best thing that can happen to Halep is for Sharapova to continue her shoddy first-set play Saturday. Because the last thing the Romanian wants is to fall behind early against a player who seems as hungry as she's ever been to win.

Caple: Speaking of which, Mary Carillo calls Halep's game "Hingis-like.'' As you say, nerves are a key issue, and we'll see how she fares. But Halep says her improvement in Slams -- she was out in the second round or earlier in her 10 majors prior to last year's US Open -- is due to her gaining more confidence and feeling more relaxed. As for the final here, she says: "I have nothing to lose. I will keep this in my mind always. I will try to hit very relaxed. Of course, I know that it will be very tough to manage the emotions, but I will try my best at that moment.'' Actually, she does have something to lose. The championship.

Wilansky: OK, let's get to it: You and I have both watched Halep and Sharapova for nearly two weeks now. I have a ton of respect for the way Sharapova goes about her business, but I'm going on record as saying Halep will win the title come Saturday. First (shameless plug), I picked her before the tournament began, and a win will give me some serious bragging points the next time I run into our analysts. But more importantly, Halep has the look of someone who is ready to start winning majors, not just here in Paris, but at other venues as well. Her movement is reminiscent of Hingis, as Carillo said, but Halep has also made a concerted effort to stay close to the baseline, take balls on the rise and end points when she needs to. Mr. Caple, I say Halep in two.

Caple: And I agree with you. Both will need to be at the top of their games. Sharapova has been spotty here, while Halep has been spot on the entire tournament. Sure, Sharapova has the experience -- this is her ninth final in a major and she'll be going for her 50th win at Roland Garros -- and the name recognition, but Halep is the better player now. There is a reason she is going to be ranked third in the world after this, and she will show it Saturday.

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