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?
NADAL’S OWN NOVELTY
The biggest upset at the 2018 men’s Roland Garros tournament was not Marco Cecchinato over Novak Djokovic. It was something much bigger: Through the first six rounds of play, the men produced a better, more interesting, more compelling tournament than the women. That hadn’t happened in a few years. The 2017 Australian Open was great on both the men’s and women’s sides. The last time the men were unambiguously better than the women? If you have a clear answer, good for you, but it won’t come from the past three years. The men have occasionally matched the women and usually fallen short.
At Roland Garros in 2018, the men were better. (more…)
WOMEN’S TENNIS: THIS KIND OF SOCIALISM WORKS
Socialism sounds good in theory but never ends up well in practice, they say.
“They” obviously aren’t watching women’s professional tennis these days.
Remember when Serena Williams continued and extended her control over the WTA Tour at the 2017 Australian Open, following a 2016 run in which she made three major finals and a fourth semifinal? That 2016 season was also a campaign in which Angelique Kerber reached three major finals and won two. Not a lot of sharing happened on the WTA Tour, and when Serena lifted her 23rd major crown in Melbourne, it seemed that women’s tennis would remain a monarchy run by Serena, not a democracy in which various players had an equal say in the year’s most important tournaments.
Then came Serena’s pregnancy, and in a heartbeat, the WTA became a vast expanse of questions and uncertainties.
We have seen on the ATP Tour how the injury-based absences of top players have created voids — not only in terms of consistent results at majors, but also the overall quality of play. This just-concluded French Open was one of the ATP’s better majors in a while, but over the past two years, men’s tennis at the Grand Slam tournaments has been largely dreary and uninspiring. Most finals have been numbingly predictable snoozefests, and without proven players to take charge in halves or quarters of draws, many random results — “someone will win because someone has to, not because someone is transcendent or special” — have proliferated. The 2017 Roland Garros tournament was like this. The 2017 Wimbledon tournament offered glimpses of such an identity. 2017 U.S. Open was the ultimate representation of this dynamic over the past 18 months. The 2018 Australian Open largely fit this description as well.
Missing the top stars the past 18 to 24 months has noticeably hurt the quality of the ATP Tour, so when Serena had to tend to the task of childbirth, everyone naturally wondered how women’s tennis would respond.
The results have been unpredictable, just as they have been with the men (hello, Sam Querrey making a Wimbledon semifinal; Kevin Anderson playing Pablo Carreno Busta in a U.S. Open semifinal; Hyeon Chung and Kyle Edmund making Australian Open semis; Marco Cecchinato making these just-concluded Roland Garros semis). However, women’s tennis has produced the compelling major finals men’s tennis has failed to deliver. Just compare the two Roland Garros finals we witnessed over the weekend.
More than that, women’s tennis is crowning the new champions men’s tennis is failing to produce.
Since the start of 2010, men’s tennis has created only three first-time major champions: Andy Murray at the 2012 U.S. Open, Stan Wawrinka at the 2014 Australian Open, and Marin Cilic at the 2014 U.S. Open.
Ever since Serena stepped away from the sport in early 2017, the WTA — in a span of five major tournaments — has exceeded the men’s total of first-time major winners this decade.
Jelena Ostapenko last year at Roland Garros; Sloane Stephens at the U.S. Open; Caroline Wozniacki in Australia; and Simona Halep this past Saturday in Paris have all crossed the threshold. If the men — #ATPLostBoys — can’t pass the baton to younger generations just yet, the WTA is doing exactly that, and in supremely entertaining fashion. What is even more noteworthy: The players at the center of the WTA’s balanced distribution of signature championships are removing significant what-if burdens from the sport.
Ostapenko is the outlier in the group, but Stephens has answered questions about who will be the next American player to follow in Serena’s footsteps — not to the same extent, of course, but certainly in terms of being a constant threat to do well at the biggest events in the sport.
In 2018, Wozniacki and Halep have both removed the eight most oppressive words in tennis or golf from their necks: “Best player never to have won a major.” The unpredictability we all expected in women’s tennis once Serena stepped away has been the happiest, most productive unpredictability one could imagine. The combination of entertainment value and redemptive stories has been off the charts.
The flow of life on the WTA Tour has been so cathartic and inspiring that after Wozniacki and Halep removed burdensome labels from their careers, there’s no similarly acute example remaining of a player currently in contention at majors who is trying to banish her demons. Karolina Pliskova, at 26, is the oldest player without a major in the current WTA top 10. As she gets to age 28 or 29, her story might become more poignant, but as someone who has made only two major semifinals and only one major final, Pliskova doesn’t have the accumulation of memorably painful defeats both Wozniacki and Halep absorbed before those two finally broke through. Wozniacki’s and Halep’s respective triumphs this year carried so much impact because the tennis world was aware how often they had climbed the hill, only to be knocked down to the valleys below. Pliskova’s story doesn’t carry the same weight — not yet. The WTA has written the two foremost feel-good stories it possibly could have authored in 2018.
The one still-active player on the WTA Tour who can legitimately claim to be the “Best Player Never To Have Won A Major” is Agnieszka Radwanska, now 29 years old. However, she is outside the top 25 and hasn’t been a top threat at the majors for roughly two years. (She lost to Serena in the 2016 Australian Open semifinals.) Among active players in contention at the year’s biggest tournaments, no first-time major hopefuls carry the promise of hope or the weight of longing to the degree Wozniacki and Halep offered.
In an age when so many sports teams — internationally and in America — are winning their first huge championships in their respective realms of competition, the WTA is in step with the times. That the WTA’s evolution has coexisted with a high quality of play and gripping major finals shows that this version of socialism — wide and relatively even distribution of resources — works in practice, not just in theory.
We will see at Wimbledon if it continues.
Testigos de la grandeza
Mientras veía a Rafael Nadal intentar completar el tercer set de la final masculina de Roland Garros a la vez que resistía un calambre en su mano izquierda, de repente, comprendí algo que me impactó: cada pequeño detalle debe darse para que un jugador encuentre el santo grial del tenis, también conocido como ganar un gran título de grand slam. No puede haber ningún accidente.
Ningún conductor ebrio, como el que frenó a Thomas Muster, ni un fanático desequilibrado, como el que interrumpió el curso de la vida de Mónica Seles. No puede haber ninguna lesión, como las muñecas vulnerables de Juan Martín Del Potro o ninguna distracción que pueda causar algún problema personal. Ni siquiera se puede sufrir un lapsus de concentración porque eso le abre la puerta a rivales hambrientos que siempre están trabajando para mejorar. (more…)