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Resurgent Stephens eyes French fairytale

  • Matt Trollope

Ranked 64th and on a five-match losing streak, Sloane Stephens arrived at Roland Garros completely devoid of form and momentum.

Yet she quickly rediscovered it at a tournament that has brought her sustained success.

On Sunday, the American completely dismantled red-hot Jil Teichmann to book a meeting with young countrywoman Coco Gauff, in what will be a highly-anticipated clash for a place in the semifinals.

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Teichmann reached the Madrid semis and Rome quarters before the French Open and had won 10 of her past 12 clay-court matches. She began in a similar manner against Stephens when she surged ahead 2-0, 40-15 – but she did not win another game.

Stephens ultimately hit more winners, made just a third of the unforced errors, and forced another 17 errors from Teichmann’s racquet.

She dropped just three points in the second set.

"This is one of my favourite tournaments, so I always enjoy playing here,” said Stephens, who earlier trailed Sorana Cirstea 6-3 2-0 before rebounding.

"Since I was young I loved playing here, since juniors. I've always had a good experience. Paris has been always amazing to me and the people have always been so nice... Paris is just one of the cities that you just love.

“(It’s) just a pleasure to take the court here and a pleasure to be in the quarterfinals again.”

Stephens has in fact reached the Roland Garros quarterfinals in three of the past five years, another piece of evidence in a vast suite that shows this tournament to be her most successful of the four majors. 

She is famous for her stunning run to 2017 US Open title. Also, too, for her upset win over Serena Williams to reach the Australian Open 2013 semifinals as a teenager.

But it is the clay-courts of Paris on which she has been at her most potent; the conditions amplify her movement, consistency, heaviness of shot, point construction and ability to shift between defence and offence.

The 29-year-old has reached the second week at Roland Garros eight times – more than at the other three Slams combined – and owns a 32-10 career record at the tournament, which improves to 35-10 (77.8%) if you include her three qualifying-round wins in 2011. 

She reached the final in 2018, coming within six points of the title before fading to a three-set loss to Simona Halep.

This near-miss has always felt under-discussed; it was something understandably lost amid the universal celebration for Halep’s achievement, which ended the Romanian’s major final heartbreak at her fourth attempt.

That appearance in the French final was part of a golden 14-month run of form for Stephens, who had won the most recent US Open and Miami titles, and later finished runner-up in Montreal and at the WTA Finals in 2018, to peak at world No.3. 

Yet after falling outside the top 10 almost three years ago, she has never scaled those heights again.

There have been glimpses; in February she won the tournament in Guadalajara, her first WTA title in four years.

She then went on to lose six of her next seven matches, the most recent being a defeat, from a set up, to 306th-ranked lucky loser Nefisa Berberovic – a player who had never faced a top-100 opponent.

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It could have been cause for great concern, except that once Stephens arrived in Paris, she quickly rediscovered the magic.

Next up is Gauff, who Stephens subdued in straight sets in the second round at last year’s US Open.

After beating Teichmann, Stephens conducted an on-court interview during which the interviewer asked her directly: did she think she could win the title?

"Ooof,” Stephens replied with a smile, as the Court Suzanne Lenglen crowd cheered.

“I've been close. I've been close, and I'm gonna try and get back there again. We're gonna do our best.”