PARIS – For Sloane Stephens, it seems to have all come so easily even if appearances are, more often than not, very deceiving.
For Simona Halep, it all has seemed such a struggle at times – mostly an internal struggle as she wrestles with the consequences of greatness.
But the one whose path seems more effortless was the No. 10 seed at this French Open. And the one who has battled so hard is the No. 1 player in the world.
And yet, it is Stephens who owns a Grand Slam title, won last year in her homeland as the unexpected culmination of a nearly year-long break because of a foot injury.
And it is Halep, a finalist a year ago, who seeks the elusive first Grand Slam title of her career.
This is the fourth major final she will play, the third on the red clay in Paris.
Will the third time be the charm?
“I think I’m pretty calm on the court all the time, I’d say. I don’t get too up, too down. But I think that it has helped me in finals, but, yeah, it’s not something I really focus on,” Stephens said Saturday, before the big event Sunday at 3 p.m. Paris time.
“Well, for sure, I’m a little bit different because I have more experience. I’m more relaxed about this situation. But, you know, you never know. Every match is different, and I cannot expect anything for tomorrow. I just expect myself to give everything I have and to try to play my best tennis,” Halep said. “It’s nice that in 12 months I have played one more final in Melbourne. So I feel good. I feel great in this position. Hopefully tomorrow I will be better than previous ones.”
When Stephens gets to the final of a tournament, she wins. Literally. She always wins. She is 6-0 in her career when she gets in that position.
Against Halep, she has not been that successful. Although it has never been in a final.
Head-to-head favors Halep
Of their seven meetings, the American has won just two.
Both came in the space of a month in 2013, when she defeated the Romanian in the second round of a small tuneup event in Hobart the week before the Australian Open. And then she defeated her again in the first round in Melbourne.
Both, at the time, were unseeded.
Stephens had been ranked just inside the top 40 before those two events. Her run to the semifinals in Melbourne vaulted her into the top 20 and set the stage for outside expectations that, until last year’s triumph at Flushing Meadows, were never quite met.
Halep was just inside the top 50. A few weeks later, she fell out before she battled her way back.
Since then, Halep has won four straight meetings between the two.
She defeated Stephens in the fourth round in Paris four years ago, on her way to her first major final. And she has beaten her three times since then. All three came on hard courts in the U.S., notably in the semifinals of Cincinnati last summer as Stephens was making her red-hot run through the American summer hard-court circuit.
But that head-to-head doesn’t mean much to Halep.
“I don’t want to think about that because, as I said many times, it’s a different match, different situation. Both of us will be ready to give everything we have,” she said. “But I believe in my chance. I believe that I have the game to win the match. But you never know. I just want to wait and to see how it goes.”
Injury break changed everything
Someone once said of Stephens that the (relative) burden she must bear is how good a tennis player she is. She knew early on that she could take the court, under any conditions, against most players and beat them on talent alone.
But to win the big titles, to get to the weekends of tournaments, you have to get past equally talented players.
And it was unclear whether the gifted American was prepared to pay the price – day after day after day of grinding it out in practice and fighting for every point – to hit those heights. The effort, the commitment, seemed to ride a wave at times.
Losing nearly a year of her career, after foot surgery and rehab, certainly allowed for a plenty of time for reflection.
“After not playing for 11 months, it’s some great results. I’m really pleased with that. Obviously a lot of hard work went into it, a lot of adversity, a lot of ups and downs. A lot of emotional, like, you know, ‘Am I ever going to be the same? Am I ever going to play good again at a high-enough level? Am I a protected ranking? ‘
“There were so many things that went into it. And I think now I’ve kind of – I have matured a little bit and have recognized the opportunities when they have been presented. I think the most important thing is that I have taken those opportunities and done a lot with them.”
Even after Stephens won the US Open and didn’t do much the rest of the season, as she processed the triumph and recovered from the physical toll it took on her after so long away, people asked those same questions again.
Perhaps, because of that glorious talent, those questions may always be asked when she doesn’t win.
But Stephens seems well-equipped not to dwell too long on the expectations of others.
No. 1, and No. 1 in the U.S.
Regardless of the result, Halep has secured her No. 1 spot through this tournament. A victory could extend her lead over No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki to more than 1,200 points going into the grass-court season.
And regardless of the result, Stephens will become the No. 1 American for the first time in her career.
With two women named Venus and Serena lurking at the top during Stephens’ entire career, that wasn’t really an option and may not even have been a thought.
Win or lose, Stephens will rise to a career-best ranking of No. 4.
Venus Williams had been at No. 9. But even though she was a surprise first-round loser, she will remain there.
Serena Williams will jump from No. 451 to No. 185 with her effort in Paris, cut short in the fourth round because of a pectoral injury.
Madison Keys, the good friend Stephens defeated in the semifinals in Paris, will remain at No. 10.