Sloane Stephens might be the last woman Simona Halep would have wanted to see in the women’s singles final at Roland Garros on Saturday. First, the American is 6-0 in finals, which includes a U.S. Open title. Second, Stephens can run just as fast as Halep, one of her ace assets.
Then again, Stephens hasn’t beaten Halep in their last four meetings. The American is 2-5 against Halep overall. Those are lackluster stats. Halep is also the number one player in the world, who will be playing in her third French Open final, losing last year to surprise finalist Jelena Ostapenko. So, quite logically, Halep is as hungry as a bear waking from a long winter’s nap to finally win a major title and knock that ever-loving monkey off her back.
Let’s stop for a second and reflect, though.
Stats and predictions are all good. We love them. They indulge our imaginations and can show how much, or little, we know about the game and its players. Bottom line: Most bets are off in a final at Roland Garros unless your name happens to be Rafael Nadal, who is looking for his 11th title on Sunday. He doesn’t count in the conversation.
What counts is Sloane Stephens’ defeat of compatriot Madison Keys in Thursday’s late semifinal. It was Stephens’ second semifinal on a major-tournament stage. She had her friend’s number in the U.S. Open final last year and found it again Thursday in Paris, winning 6-4, 6-4, to advance to her first-ever Roland Garros final.
Stephens’ play was sublime. It appeared effortless, a word used too often to explain the inexplicable. What does explain the word “effortless”: timing.
Her timing on the ball was immaculate, clean, and yes, perfect. The depth of her groundstrokes and the precision with which she hits her targets flow from accurate timing. Keys is no dummy in that department; none of the women on tour lack the skill. However, Stephens consistently proves herself a master at “effortless” tennis. It isn’t easy at all, but Sloane makes it look that way.
If we compare winners to unforced errors struck during their match, a glaring difference pops up. Keys hit 25 winners but 41 unforced errors. Sloane, on the other side of the net, hit only 9 winners to 11 unforced errors. Stephens, therefore, executed her plan with greater ease. She didn’t rely on a go-for-broke game, but a steady, focused march to the finish line.
“Very even keeled emotionally,” Tracy Austin said, calling the match for Tennis Channel. “She’s hitting outside the strike zone of Keys.”
Stephens went for a high-five when the two friends met at the net after all was said and done. Keys, though, hugged her buddy. The response was more appropriate, revealing the depth of her admiration and love for Stephens. After that, though, Keys picked up her bag and made a beeline for the exit. At one point she held a towel in front of the camera lens that wanted to trail her and capture the emotion of the day.
“Playing someone from your country is tough,” Stephens told Jon Wertheim on court. “I was happy I stayed consistent and stuck with my game plan. I try not to overthink it too much. Just go out and let happen what happens.”
Last spring in Paris, the outlook was dismal for both Stephens and Keys.
“Sloane Stephens was in a boot,” Austin began. “Keys was in so much pain she went home and had a second wrist surgery.”
After her U.S. Open triumph Stephens lost eight consecutive matches. But she came to Paris with a 20-6 record. She advanced to the round of 16 at Madrid and Rome, but made a first-round exit in Stuttgart when she lost to another American friend, CoCo Vandeweghe. In March, Stephens won her first WTA Premier Mandatory trophy, defeating the hard-hitting 2017 French Open winner Jelena Ostapenko in the Miami final.
“I’ve learned a lot in the last nine months,” Stephens told Wertheim. “So I’ll take some of that into the finals.”
Even if Stephens doesn’t win on Saturday, she will rise to number four in the rankings. The last American to hold a top-five ranking other than Venus Williams and Serena Williams was Lindsay Davenport in April of 2006. Ironically Davenport is Keys’ soon-to-depart coach.
If Stephens does win the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen, she would be the fourth American in the Open Era to win each of her first two finals. The other women who would share that honor are Tracy Austin, Jennifer Capriati and Davenport.
But the question remains until the last ball is struck on Saturday: Will she beat Halep?