Stephens Is Enjoying A Roland Garros Rebirth

Sloane Stephens (photo: @rolandgarros/Instagram)

PARIS/WASHINGTON, June 4, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Sloane Stephens is thriving at this year’s French Open. She’s one of eight American women who have advanced to the third round of the year’s second major. The Florida native been impressive in her two victories on the terre battue, which has improved her 2021 win-loss record to 11-10.

First, Stephens rallied to beat Carla Suárez Navarro in an emotional three-set match Tuesday evening that marked the return of the Spaniard after recovering from cancer. Then, the 2018 French Open finalist took care of No. 9 seed Karolina Pliskova, 7-5, 6-1, in back of hitting 22 winners Thursday afternoon on Court Philippe-Chatrier.

However, don’t let Stephens’ calm and poised exterior fool you. Inside Stephens’ interior, the 28-year-old has had to endure more pain and tumult than anyone should have to in such a short period of time. Between Christmas and the start of the Australian Open, Stephens and her family were ravaged by Covid-19 deaths to an aunt, a grandmother and a grandfather, her No. 1 fans, in a matter of a couple of weeks. Because Stephens was already in the bubble in Melbourne, she attended her grandparents’ funerals via teleconference from her hotel room.

During a press conference after her match against Suárez Navarro, Stephens expressed her regret. “Looking back on it now, I should have asked to leave the bubble,” she said of the 14-day quarantine for players before the Australian Open in Melbourne.

“I should have asked to go to my grandparents’ funeral. I should have made those inquiries and seen if I could get out of the bubble and go home. I didn’t. It’s something that I’ll probably regret for the rest of my life, because I prioritized my tennis over things that were happening in my life.”

Stephens began the year with four consecutive first-round defeats. She hit rock bottom in Monterrey, Mexico, where as the top seed in a WTA 250 outdoor hard-court event – and ranked 44th – she lost in straight sets to No. 149 Kristina Kucova, ranked more than 100 places below her. Stephens played lethargically and looked like she wanted to be anywhere but on a tennis court.

In hindsight, Stephens realizes, “The only thing I can do now is move on and move forward. There’s nothing wrong with having a therapist or two and a grief counselor and all of these things. I have to do what’s better for me and work on myself.”

She recently added Barcelona-based coaches Francis Roig and Jordi Vilaró to her team that already includes Diego Moyano and longtime friend and ATP player Darian King.

Now, the 59th-ranked Stephens has found solace on clay, her favorite playing surface. First, she began the spring clay season with a quarterfinal run at the Volvo Car Open in Charleston, S.C., but wasn’t able to sustain her momentum once she arrived in Europe. She had uneven results in Madrid and Rome, losing in the second round in Spain, then the first round in Italy after making the main draw as a lucky loser. Soon, Stephens rebounded with a semifinal finish in Parma after stringing together three quality wins. Next, she faces No. 18 seed Karolina Muchova on Saturday in her 10th appearance at Roland Garros.

When she was asked to sum up her year, Stephens said matter-of-fact, “Covid. Death. Traumatic things happening in life, things that are out of my control. I kind of just had to manage, and I feel like I have just done the best I can.”

One April night in Charleston, speaking before a small group of reporters, which included Tennis TourTalk, Stephens used her virtual press conference as a confessional. She had a lot on her mind. “It’s going to get better,” she said. “No one stays in a rut for the rest of their life or the rest of their career. It’s just literally not possible. At some point the tables do turn, the tides turn, and you have to be ready for when that does happen.”

This week in Paris, Stephens is regaining her mojo – it comes from the joy of playing well – and she’s smiling again.

Heartbreaking end to clay season for Barty

Undoubtedly, it was the wisest thing for Ashleigh Barty to do, to retire from her second-round match against unseeded Magda Linette of Poland, trailing 1-6, 2-2. After all, the World No. 1 from Australia always listens to her body. Still, it’s quite gutting that the 2019 Roland Garros champion, who chose to stay home in Australia last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, won’t be able to continue to defend her only Grand Slam title in Paris.

Barty has been hampered by injuries of late – to her arm, her hip, her thigh – and for the second time in her last three matches, she’s retired, a decision she called “heartbreaking” but necessary. On Wednesday, it was her left hip that failed her.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Barty said during her press conference. “I mean, we have had such a brilliant clay court season, and to kind of get a little bit unlucky with timing more than anything to have something kind of acute happen over the weekend and just kind of run out of time against the clock is disappointing. It won’t take away the brilliant three months that we have had, as much as it hurts right now.

“It was just becoming too much. Right from the first game I was battling the pain, and it just became too severe, and like I said, was becoming unsafe.

“It was a decision that, yeah, just a tough one, he to be done.”

After Barty’s first-round win against unseeded American Bernarda Pera on Tuesday, in which the 25-year-old Aussie was pushed to three sets, she addressed the subject of her injury. “Over the weekend we had a bit of a flare-up through my left hits, which obviously just needed a bit of help today, needed some assistance to try and release it off as bet as I could. But not, I think we were able to fight through, about to give ourselves a chance to play against the next round.”

Barty, who played with a heavy-taped left thigh against Linette, left the court during a medical time out following the first set to receive additional treatment. The 29-year-old Polish No. 2 sat patiently at her chair reviewing notes while she waited for the top seed to return to Court Philippe-Chatrier. Soon, Barty pulled the plug four games into the second set.

Thursday was Barty’s 28th match of the season, most on the WTA tour. She pulled out of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia last month citing a right arm injury. This time, it was her hip. Following her retirement Thursday, she also pulled out of the doubles competition where she was teamed with Jennifer Brady in a reprise of their title success at Stuttgart earlier this season.

“Completely new injury,” Barty said. “Something that I’ve never experienced before, even chatting with my physio, it’s something she has not seen regularly either. So, we’ve been consulting with people all over the world to try and give us some insight into what the best ways to manage it are. I’m confident we do have a plan. It’s just that we ran out of time here.”

Meanwhile, the 45th-ranked Linette, understandably left the court disappointed that she wasn’t able to beat Barty at her best. Nonetheless, the Polish No. 2 achieved her first Top 10 win after reaching the semifinals last week in Strasbourg, France. She moves into the third round against 25th seed Ons Jabeur after the Tunisian beat unseeded Astra Sharma of Australia, 6-2, 6-4.

Barty, as is her usual, remained positive during her press conference. “Everything happens for a reason,” she said. “There will be a silver lining in this eventually. Once I find out what that is, it will make me feel a little bit better. But it will be there, I’m sure.”

Thursday’s Roland-Garros results

Friday’s Roland-Garros order of play

Carlos Alcaraz: Dazzling debut

With his second-round victory on Thursday, 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz became the youngest man to reach the third round at Roland Garros since 17-year-old Andrei Medvedev in 1992. Alcaraz also iman to reach the third round at a Grand Slam since 17-year-old Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open in 2004.

When tennis meets art

Iga Swiatek: Defending champion sizzling

Mikael Ymer: Redefining Swedish tennis

Happy 35th Birthday, Rafael Nadal

By the numbers

• When Roger Federer and Marin Cilic took to Court Philippe-Chatrier Thursday afternoon for their second-round match, they became the 44th pair of players in the Open Era (since 1968) to contest in all four majors.

• At age 39, Roger Federer is the oldest man in the singles draw. Also 39, Serena Williams, with older sister Venus (40) out of the tournament, is oldest woman. Both Roger and Serena have played at Roland Garros in four decades – the 1990s, the 2000s, the 2010s and now the 2020s.

What they’re saying

Roger Federer on his victory over Marin Cilic: “The good thing is I come out of a match like this and I know why it was up and down. It gives me a lot of confidence that I was able to step up my game and pull away from him. That fourth set was big.”

Sloane Stephens on the legacy of Althea Gibson, who 65 years ago became the first Black tennis player to win a Roland-Garros title: “I think it’s amazing. Obviously, having played after so many great champions, especially Althea, who paved the way for Americans and women and black females like myself.

“It’s amazing, it’s unreal and obviously after Serena and Venus, to play after them to continue to grow the legacy I think is amazing. It’s such a beautiful thing. 65 years later here we are and I’m very proud to be here.”

What they’re writing

Ben Strauss, media writer for The Washington Post, on “Naomi Osaka ignites a fight over the future of post-match press conferences,” in which he suggests that “as star athletes continue to grow in popularity, with bigger platforms that bypass traditional media, they will only grow more powerful in determining how they’re viewed — including how and when they talk to the press.”

What they’re sharing on social media

Ashleigh Barty / Until next time Paris