French Open 2018: Sloane Stephens confirms big-game prowess at Roland Garros after overcoming dry spell

Last summer, Sloane Stephens experienced a dream return to the tour after having had foot surgery in January 2017. While her US Open victory two months after returning to the game stunned the world, her run to the French Open final is further confirmation of how dangerous Stephens is at the business end of the big events.

Sloane Stephens of the US clenches her fist after defeating compatriot Madison Keys  in the semi-finals. AP

Sloane Stephens of the US clenches her fist after defeating compatriot Madison Keys in the semi-finals. AP

“I have no idea what I was doing”, Sloane Stephens stated in her typical straightforward fashion, when she was asked whether she could remember the day of the French Open final 2017. “But I remember, like, the first week of French Open, I was at a wedding in Ireland. So that was pretty cool, yeah.”

Stephens was in the best of spirits and completely relaxed after Thursday’s semi-finals win. With her 6-4, 6-4 win over close friend Madison Keys, the American booked her second ticket to a Grand Slam final – less than a year after returning to tour from foot surgery and not playing for almost ten months.

Her remarkable run in New York last year has been long documented but Stephens hit a dry spell afterwards, losing eight matches in a row before she found her footing again in February 2018.

“I think definitely the timing was unexpected, playing four tournaments and winning the US Open, like, doesn't happen”, the American said remembering her own and many other people’s surprise last summer.

“But I think that the results now, I wouldn't say I'm shocked, but I'm very happy. I think I worked really hard coming back and getting in the gym, and when I was chubby trying to get skinny and when I was out of shape getting back in shape. I have recognised more things I have needed to do. So when I have gotten in shape and done all the things that my coach asked me to do, I kind of – not expect good things to happen, but I just put it into the universe, like, God, look what I did, help a sister out.”

Stephens has her own way of doing things, saying things and it’s fairly different from a lot of the other players. In press conferences there is always the element of surprise – sometimes Stephens will play her cards close to her chest after a question that would maybe need a more elaborate answer while being chatty on something that seems a little more random. The nuggets often come though, just maybe not where you first expect them.

The 2017 US Open champion can be occasionally hard to read – whether it is on court or in the press. Negatives ostensibly slide off of Stephens’ shoulders at times and that’s not because she doesn’t care (something she has been criticised for in the past) but rather because a lost point means there’s a new opportunity around the corner. And unlike so many other players, Sloane Stephens does not equate opportunity with pressure, which might just be her biggest strength.

Much like in New York last September, Stephens went on lock-down in her semi-final match against Madison Keys, playing incredibly solid while Keys produced a few too many mistakes.

“It's never easy playing someone from your country, let alone someone you actually, like, care about and you're friends with. It's very difficult”, Stephens said in her press conference after the semi-finals. “I think more when I do play Madison, it's just – on the court, it's very competitive. We are always very competitive. But it's a little weird. There's not as much "Come ons" and things like that.”

Not unlike after her US Open win, Stephens also caused plenty of laughter during her talk with the media, joking about the rental prices on the Champs Elysee being way out of her range and harking back to her reaction to receiving the 3.7 Mio $ winners’ check at the US Open, showing her off-the-cuff hilarious side.

“Well, it's not as much as the US Open, right?”, the American laughed when asked whether she knew how much money was on offer on Saturday.

“I don't know if they tell you like they do – do they tell you on the court? I think it's more of a secret. Europeans are very like…”, Stephens motioned a quiet “hush hush” gesture before booming: “Americans are like, “3.7! Whoo!” while raising her arms and cracking up laughing.

There’s a real possibility that Stephens will be getting the big check on Saturday again – her encounter with World No 1 Simona Halep feels like a 50-50 match in advance. Halep played a blinding semi-final against Garbine Muguruza but she also has the baggage of three Grand Slam final losses, the toughest perhaps being last year against Jelena Ostapenko.

Stephens, on the contrary, remains flawless in finals, posting a 6-0 record in her career.

“When you get to the final, obviously you have played well, but the person that you are playing against also played well. So I think I go in knowing it's going to be a battle no matter what, no matter who you're playing”, the American explained.

With Stephens’ ability to easily take the good and bad in her stride, the 25-year-old has been more than backing up her surprise success from last summer. The Miami Open title and a second Grand Slam final will see her become the No 1 female American (“That’s cool!”) and rise to at least No 4 in the WTA rankings.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Stephens seems to be the least fazed by that out of anyone.

“I think just the whole point was just to get to top 10. And it was, like, I was 11, so it was a really big deal. And you guys reminded me literally every press conference that I was 11 and that I was close to 10, and now at 10, and it was a big deal. And now it's, like, I don't think anyone really cares”, Stephens said in an almost laissez-faire manner and then quickly added with a smile: “But it’s fun though!”

And that is exactly what will make the American so dangerous in Saturday’s women’s final.

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Updated Date: Jun 08, 2018 12:45:42 IST

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