It’s all been quite up in the air, at least officially, with Team Sloane Stephens since the end of the 2018 season.
She hadn’t split with coach Kamau Murray, even if he wasn’t at the WTA Finals in Singapore with her. Everything was fine, was the official word; Murray had a previous commitment at his center in Chicago. But Sylvester Black was with the American in Singapore, where she reached the final.
By early 2019, Stephens and Murray were officially “on an indefinite break”. And Black, who is based in Asia, began the season Down Under with her.
But now, that very successful Stephens-Murray relationship is officially over, because Murray and another former member of Team Stephens who was gone last fall have new gigs.
Puerto Rico’s Monica Puig announced via social media Tuesday that she is making a big change on the coaching side.
Todero out, Murray in
Puig has taken on the biggest elements of the former Team Stephens.
Not only is she now working with Murray, Puig also has added coach Othmane Garma (who also was gone from Team Sloane at the end of 2018). There also is a new physio and a setup at Murray’s XS Tennis Center in Chicago.
MELBOURNE, Australia – In theory, the top 11 players on the WTA Tour to start the 2019 season have a shot at leaving Melbourne with the No. 1 ranking.
A few of them are long shots, involving winning the title and having current No. 1 Simona Halep going out early (see the story on the website).
But still, it’s mathematically possible. And so the permutations of Thursday’s draw obviously took on a little more significance for some of those players.
And so, the draw gods determining that No. 1 Halep and No. 16 Serena Williams would be an on-paper fourth-round match makes things interesting – as does the fact that 2017 finalist Venus Williams – unseeded, could be a third-round opponent.
But it is a game of roulette to even try to predict who might get through.
Many of the players only took part in one tournament before the Australian Open. And many players exited early. Some didn’t didn’t even play one.
Some are carrying injuries over from 2018. There have been multiple coaching changes. There are some dangerous floaters.
And the 2018 champion, Caroline Wozniacki, is defending a major for the first time and is in a section where the most in-form player at the moment, Aussie Ashleigh Barty, could be her fourth-round opponent.
The names that floated to the top during the Tour Finals in Singapore are not necessarily those who are coming into the season riding that momentum.
We’re thinking notably of Elina Svitolina, Kiki Bertens – and even Sloane Stephens, who finished the season beautifully even as she was in the process of splitting up with the coach.
In form, or out?
Here’s how some of the contenders for this year’s women’s singles title are going (to coin the Aussie phrase) leading up to the first major of the season.
 Simona Halep:There are questions to be answered about the back issue that scuttled the end of her fantastic 2018 season. There’s the fact that she is without longtime coach Darren Cahill, although he’s never far away. And there’s the fact that she’s played only four matches since mid-August in Cincinnati – including a straight-sets loss to the in-form Ashleigh Barty in her only match leading up to next week.
 Angelique Kerber:Kerber made a coaching change in the off-season after a not-overly-friendly breakup with veteran coach Wim Fissette. She went with countryman Rainer Schuettler, who had been working with Vasek Pospisil on the ATP Tour.
“He knows how it is to being under pressure, to having the emotions on court. He understands my thinking. You know, on court he is also, like, a hard worker,” Kerber said during her pre-tournament press conference Saturday.
The 2016 champion was beaten in her second match in Sydney by Petra Kvitova in a late night, rain-delayed affair. But she got plenty of tennis in at the Hopman Cup exhibition.
 Caroline Wozniacki:The 2019 Australian Open is going to be a new experience for Wozniacki, who will be defending a Grand Slam title for the first time in her long career. She’ll also – not insignificantly – be defending 2000 ranking points. She also made public a new battle – with rheumatoid arthritis.
Wozniacki got two matches in, at Auckland the first week of the season. She was upset in the second one by Canadian teenager Bianca Andreescu.
 Naomi Osaka:The offseason was a whirlwind for the new darling of women’s tennis – the US Open champion. She signed a number of sponsorship deals (including one announced just Saturday, with an airline).
She is now, officially, a corporate brand. And her every utterance is lapped up by the women’s tennis media as if it comes wrapped in the wisdom of Socrates. She’s on the cover of TIME this week. It’s all a lot to process for the rather shy 21-year-old with the anything-but-shy game.
Osaka got to the semis in Brisbane but was not happy with herself after a 6-2, 6-4 loss to Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine. She had entered Sydney, but didn’t play.
 Sloane Stephens:The American finished the season beautifully in Singapore, despite the fact that her team situation was rather uncertain. Gone are longtime coach Kamau Murray as well as traveling coach/hitting partner Othmane Garma. Coach – at least this month – is Sylvester Black. … She comes to Melbourne in question-mark form. Stephens dropped her opener in Brisbane to Johanna Konta. She overcame a first-set bagel to defeat qualifier Ekaterina Alexandrova in a third-set tiebreak. Then, against the feisty Yulia Putintseva, Stephens had the match in hand before losing it 6-0 in the third set.
 Elina Svitolina:The win at the Tour Finals in Singapore seemed to be a big step up for Svitolina, who is always spoken of as a potential Grand Slam champion. So far, though, she has just three quarterfinals in 25 career Slams – two of them at the French Open. But the third came here in Melbourne a year ago.
But Svitolina is another player who has juggled coaching changes. As well, she has just one match in 2019 – an opening loss to Aliaksandra Sasnovich in Brisbane. On the plus side, she looks healthier than she did last year.
 Karolina Pliskova:The former No. 1 seems to have put together an intriguing and potentially fruitful all-female coaching tag-team combo in former players Conchita Martinez (who’s here in Melbourne) and Rennae Stubbs (who is also here, with myriad media commitments).
Pliskova won Brisbane, winning three three-setters and defeating five very good – if not top-ranked – players to take the title. Her form can be considered pretty good coming in.
 Petra Kvitova:The two-time Wimbledon champion tends to struggle with the heat and (sometimes) humidity in Australia. Since reaching the semis in 2012, she has gone past the second round only once. (Of course, she didn’t play it in 2017 after the terrifying home invasion that left her with multiple severed tendons in the fingers of her playing hand.
On Saturday, Kvitova survived (barely) the extreme weather conditions in Sydney to beat Barty in a third-set tiebreak and win the title. That’s a tremendous confidence builder. But it appeared to take everything she had.
Unfortunately, her half of the draw plays Monday at the Australian Open – on what’s expected to be another scorcher. A least, she has an evening match against veteran Slovak Magdalena Rybarikova. She’s 6-1 against Rybarikova, going back to their first pro meeting all the way back in 2007.
When the seeds finally meet for a spot that’s sweet in the second week, the tournament really gets going.
 Simona Halep vs.  Mihaela Buzarnescu– A potential all-Romanian clash although Halep has to get through Kanepi and new titleist Sofia Kenin to get there. You’d expect Venus Williams to oust Buzarnescu in the first round.  Carla Suárez Navarro vs.  Serena Williams– A good outcome for Serena, who might have to face Genie Bouchard in the second round.  Daria Kasatkina vs.  Garbiñe Muguruza – Neither of these two are on form. At all. Kasatkina could lose to Bacsinszky in the first round. Muguruza could face Konta or Tomljanovic in the second round. Muguruza beat Suárez Navarro in the first round in Sydney and then withdrew before her match against Kiki Bertens with a GI illness.  Camila Giorgi vs.  Karolina Pliskova– We expect this one to happen given the players in that quarter. And it’s a dangerous one for Pliskova.
 Naomi Osaka vs.  Hsieh Su-Wei – Victoria Azarenka looms in that section, as a potential second-round opponent for Hsieh.  Qiang Wang vs.  Anastasija Sevastova– Wang is one of a number of players who made a big splash on the Asian swing last fall. But this is a new year, a new reality. Will she be up to the task?  Elise Mertens vs.  Madison Keys– Mertens reached the semifinals here a year ago, in her first main-draw appearance in Melbourne. She doesn’t have much tennis in her in 2019, as she came up against a tough draw in Kiki Bertens in the first round in Melbourne. As for Keys – she’s a question mark. She has a new coach in former Tennys Sandgren associate Jim Madrigal. But she has only two actual tennis matches since last September – none this year so far.  Dominika Cibulkova vs.  Elina Svitolina – It feels as though Cibulkova, a former finalist in Melbourne five years ago, has faded from the landscape a bit even if she made a solid return from injury in 2018. She’ll play her 12th Aussie Open woefully short of match play. Her last tournament was Beijing in early October.
 Petra Kvitova vs.  Barbora Strycova– A meeting of Fed Cup teammates. But we’ll have to see how Kvitova pulls up physically from her Sydney effort Kvitova has won her last six encounters with Strycova in straight sets. Strycova has a tricky little section to navigate that includes Putintseva in the first round and either Siniakova or Bencic in the second round. Odds are she might not get through.  Lesia Tsurenko vs.  Aryna Sabalenka – A lot is expected of the hard-hitting Sabalenka, who was defeated by Barty in a tight first-round encounter a year ago (her Aussie Open debut). But she could face the always-dangerous Makarova in the second round. And Tsurenko may have to get through promising American teenager Amanda Anisimova.  Ashleigh Barty vs.  Jelena Ostapenko– Barty had a very good Hopman Cup, and an impressive Sydney, where she lost in the final to Kvitova Saturday night. She beat Ostapenko, Halep, Mertens and Bertens in successful to reach the final. You’d expect her to be there. Ostapenko is a trickier proposition. Ostapenko got just two games against Monica Niculescu in her season opener in Shenzhen. In Sydney, she got six against Barty in her opening loss. And she has a dangerous first-round opponent in Maria Sakkari of Greece.  Caroline Wozniacki vs.  Maria Sharapova – How often have these two former No. 1s played? Ten times. But not in nearly four years. Sharapova retired down 1-6, 2-4 to Aryna Sabalenka in the quarters in Shenzhen. But she has a draw that might allow her to get into the event if she’s healthy, starting with 22-year-old British qualifier Harriet Dart. If they’re both healthy, they both make it. If.
 Sloane Stephens vs.  Petra Martic– It looks like a very nice section for Stephens, even if there are some hard hitters in there. But her first match is an intriguing one. She plays against fellow American Taylor Townsend, another former pupil of coach Kamau Murray. They’ve never played.  Anett Kontaveit vs.  Kiki Bertens –A tough section that includes solid players Flipkens, Riske, Pavlyuchenkova, Puig and Sasnovich will be a fight to the end.  Julia Goerges vs.  Caroline Garcia– Garcia fell right off the charts in 2018, while Goerges, as she was turning 30, had the best season of her career. But Garcia couldn’t ask for a better draw to ease into 2019 with countrywoman Ponchet in the first round, and either Mattek-Sands or Aussie wild card Hives in the second round. Garcia is 2-0 against Goerges.  Donna Vekic vs.  Angelique Kerber –Watch out for Vekic in 2019, as she seems to be coming into her own a little bit. You’d expect these two to get out of this section even if Vekic drew Kristina Mladenovic in the first round. The two met in the second round in Melbourne last year, with Kerber winning routinely. But Vekic likely would give her a better fight this time.
Pliskova vs. Serena
Osaka vs. Mertens
Kvitova vs. Barty
Kerber vs. Bertens
First-round matches to watch
Monday: Belinda Bencic vs. Katerina Siniakova. … Amanda Anisimova vs. Monica Niculescu … Jelena Ostapenko vs Maria Sakkari …  Maria Sharapova vs. [Q] Harriet Dart …  Sloane Stephens vs. Taylor Townsend.
Tuesday:  Simona Halep vs. Kaia Kanepi …  Mihaela Buzarnescu vs. Venus WIlliams …  Daria Kasatkina vs. [PR] Timea Bacsinszky … Laura Siegemund vs. Victoria Azarenka … [Q] Bianca Andreescu vs. [WC] Whitney Osuigwe.
On a cool Sunday evening, the center court in Beijing heated up – big time– as the first-round match between No. 9 seed Sloane Stephens and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia evolved into a personal confrontation.
Up a set, but down 2-5 in the second set having previously indicated discomfort in her right shoulder, Pavlyuchenkova asked for the trainer.
That’s not an unusual occurrence. But when it happens just before the opponent serves for the set, it’s generally frowned upon.
That’s true even though there’s nothing specific in the WTA Tour rulebook that prohibits it.
The only provisions are that it occur during a changeover or set break. (Conversely, a player may not go off on a toilet break when it’s not a set break, if it’s just before the opponent’s serve).
A player can stop play in the middle of a game (regardless of who is serving) for an acute injury.
So perhaps that covers the pre-opponent-serve changeovers. But in this case, it didn’t appear to be an acute injury; you would interpret to mean a sudden, sharp pain somewhere, a rolled ankle, something like that.
Stephens, who had the momentum, clearly felt it was meant to slow her up. She had just broken her opponent for the 5-2 lead.
A seven-minute, 40-second inopportune break
Here was the timeline (the tennis.life clock starts when Stephens sits down).
35s: Chair umpire Jenny Zhang makes the announcement that the trainer has been called.
1:43: Zhang says something to Stephens, she nods.
1:55: Trainer finally arrives.
3:45: Trainer says they’ll take a medical time out.
4:30: Stephens coach Kamau Murray comes out. Stephens puts on some lip balm.
“Stay positive. Stay forward. We’re all good. Stay focused. Don’t come out and have a sleepy first two points,” Murray said.
Then umpire Zhang then says something, which elicits a wry smirk from Murray.
The physio rubbed some stuff into Pavlyuchenkova’s shoulder; the issue seemed to be in the front of the shoulder, near the chest.
6:55: Pavlyuchenkova puts her pullover back on.
7:15: Zhang calls “Time”
7:40: Stephens’ first serve, as she tries to serve out the set.
Of course, she’s broken. And after Pavlyuchenkova held serve to narrow the gap to 5-4, Stephens had something to get off her chest. So she arrived at the chair talking to Zhang, who said something to her.
“That’s the sport we play. Right? Sportsmanship. That’s REALLY important,” Stephens replied to Zhang. There was, er, a noticeable tinge of sarcasm in that remark.
And clearly, Pavlyuchenkova heard it over the loud changeover music.
After the second set, a confrontation. Pavlyuchenkova didn’t want to let the “sportsmanship” comment, which she (correctly) felt was aimed at her, go unchallenged.
Zhang immediately hopped down from her chair to get between the two.
“I’m disrespectful? What’s disrespectful? You called the physio at 5-2. You’re not even injured,” Stephens said.
“How do you know I’m not injured?” Pavlyuchenkova replied.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Don’t be ridiculous. … No, you’re disrespectful. … It’s fine. … Play the third set. It’s fine,” Stephens replied.
(As we know, whenever some says “it’s fine”, it’s typically far less than actually fine.
“You got what you wanted. You got the physio. So I don’t see what the problem is,” Stephens added.
When “it’s fine”, it’s rarely fine
Stephens then spoke again to Zhang.
“She called the physio. She got the physio. (So) she got what she wanted. It’s fine,” Stephens said. “I’m allowed to say whatever I want. I spoke to you. I didn’t address her at all.”
“You did it for me. And I heard it. And that’s disrespectful,” Pavlyuchenkova replied.
“I addressed her. I spoke to her. So fine, leave it alone,” Stephens retorted.
At no point was there any profanity. In fact, the two were remarkably civilized about it. Neither raised her voice.
After that exchange, coach Simon Goffin (the brother of David) came out to speak with Pavlyuchenkova. He told her (in French) to calm herself. To be positive. He said that as much as she says she has “evolved mentally”, now was the time to show exactly that.
Tense third set
Both players came out hitting impressively. But Stephens broke Pavlyuchenkova in the opening game. And then she broke again for 3-0.
Pavlyuchenkova recuperated one of the breaks. But the other held up until 5-4, when Stephens tried to serve it out.
There were no tense moments during the changeovers. Pavlyuchenkova was walking much more briskly to her chair then Stephens. So they didn’t come close to running into each other.
Except for that 5-4 changeover.
Notably, Stephens stood and waited until Pavlyuchenkova had gone by before heading over to her side of the court.
And despite second serves clocking in at 113 and 105 kilometres per hour, she got the job done.
Just here for the handshake
These two 20-somethings (Stephens is 25, Pavlyuchenkova 27) resolved it all like the grownups they are.
After a handshake and and a very civilized conversation at the net, it ended with Stephens saying, ‘All good?”. And so, they went their separate ways after a two-hour, 53-minute battle.
It was Stephens’s first win on the fall Asian swing since … Oct. 2015.
She didn’t play it at all in 2016; her season ended after the Rio Olympics because of the foot issue that required surgery some six months later.
Last year, the American headed to the Far East after that momentous victory at the US Open. She lost decisively in the first rounds of Wuhan and Beijing, and then dropped both her matches in the second-tier Tour final in Zhuhai.
This year, Stephens lost her first-round match in Tokyo, 6-4, 6-4 to Donna Vekic.
They last met at Indian Wells this year, where Serena was returning to action for the first time in singles since her maternity leave. Venus won that one. Before that, they met in the 2017 Australian Open final – the last tournament before Serena’s leave.
As Venus jokes, it was “two against one” in that one, won by Serena 6-4, 6-4 with baby Olympia already more than a twinkle in father Alexis Ohanian’s eye.
2.  Sloane Stephens (USA) vs. [WC] Victoria Azarenka (BLR)
Azarenka has looked very good through her first two matches. She dropped just three games in rolling over No. 25 seed Daria Gavrilova in the second round.
Stephens, the reigning US Open women’s singles champion, had to come back from a set down to prevail over qualifier Anhelina Kalinina of Ukraine in the second round.
On any other day, this would be the spotlight women’s match.
But it may well still be a very good one. Azarenka still holds a 3-2 edge. But she had the misfortune of running into Stephens at both Indian Wells and Miami earlier this year. And Stephens won both of those.
3.  Ashleigh Barty (AUS) vs. [Q] Karolina Muchova (CZE)
Muchova caused a pretty major surprise late Wednesday night (early Thursday morning) as she took down No. 12 seed Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain.
Muguruza because increasingly agitated as that match went on. Muchova, ranked just outside the top 200 coming in, became increasingly at ease after a nervy start to the biggest match of her young career.
The matchup with Barty will be a very different one. And it should be one tennis purists will really enjoy.
Barty is one of the few higher-ranked players on the WTA Tour with a genuinely varied game, full of imagination and with a willingness to hit all the shots and come to the net on a regular basis.
Muchova has similar skills and mindset, even if her pro game is still in its relative infancy.
They get the Grandstand court, which is far less intimidating than cavernous Arthur Ashe Stadium.
For Barty, getting a qualifier in the third round is a great break. For Muchova, the question will be whether she’s able to put aside her career win and keep her head down and her mind uncluttered for her next assignment.
Three men’s matches to watch
The Slam star power is definitely on the women’s side in Friday’s schedule. But there remain some compelling men’s matchups well worth a look – with a distinctly Canadian flavor.
1.  Milos Raonic (CAN) vs. [WC] Stan Wawrinka (SUI)
The former US Open champion Wawrinka needed a wild card to get in this year, as he makes his way back from two knee surgeries.
He’s back in the top 100 now, so that won’t be an issue going forward. But over the last few weeks, his level has been far closer to the top-five performer he was for several years.
As for Raonic, also beset by injuries if not of the same severity, he’s also a former top-five player. And a Grand Slam finalist at Wimbledon two years ago.
Here in New York without coach Goran Ivanisevic, whose wife is expecting a baby, he was better in his second round than he was in his first round. And his serve is working.
Wawrinka holds a 4-1 lead in their head-to-head. Raonic won the last one – a five-setter in the fourth round of the 2016 Australian Open. But that was more than 2 1/2 years ago; a lot of water under the bridge since then.
2.  Juan Martin del Potro (ARG) vs.  Fernando Verdasco (ESP)
Verdasco pulled off a tough one against Andy Murray in the second round. And he saved some energy when doubles partner Vasek Pospisil, who pulled up a little broken the day after his night-match loss to Rafael Nadal, begged off the doubles.
While Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are getting all the attention – with the potential quarterfinal clash between the Swiss and the Serb already highly anticipated – del Potro is definitely under the radar.
It has been nine years since he won his first and, so far, only Grand Slam title here.
Del Potro is 4-1 against Verdasco, with their two best battles coming on very fast indoor hard courts. The courts at the US Open this year are … not that fast.
3.  Kevin Anderson (RSA) vs.  Denis Shapovalov (CAN)
Shapovalov has burned a lot of physical and mental energy in getting this far. But on the plus side, he’s at the tail end of this summer period where he had to defend both a Masters 1000 semifinal, and a Grand Slam fourth round on the rankings tally.
He’s already largely done that, mitigating any potential drop in the rankings by at least getting credible results both in Canada and in New York.
Against Anderson, the 2017 US Open finalist he’s meeting for the first time, he can at least enjoy shorter points. And on a cooler day. On the downside, Anderson’s big serve will test the young Canadian’s inconsistent return game.
The big South African survived a five-setter of his own in the first round, against American Ryan Harrison.
PARIS – There can be no remnants of doubt, or regret for previous opportunities lost, when a childhood dream finally comes true.
There can be only joy.
And so, a joyful Simona Halep held the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen aloft for the first time, a first-time Grand Slam champion as she won the French Open Saturday.
Her smile illuminated Court Philippe-Chatrier, as she overcame a set-and-a-break deficit to triumph over No. 10 seed Sloane Stephens, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.
“It’s a special moment. I was dreaming for this moment since actually I started to play tennis. It’s my favorite Grand Slam. I always said that if I’m going to win one, I want it to be here,” Halep said.
When Halep was a set and a break down in the second set, she thought to herself, “It’s lost.”
Another chance gone, her fourth in a major final and third in Paris, to break the Grand Slam ice. So the Romanian told herself to just enjoy the moment.
And then the switch flipped
Until then, Stephens was controlling many of the points. She was breaking them open with winners and defending beautifully whenever she needed to. And then, Halep changed the game.
She hit closer to the lines. She hit harder. And she came forward to hit a few swing volleys.
And after she put away the second set, she kept it up.
It was then that all the hard work in the first set paid off.
Stephens looked to be dancing on top of the clay, as she always does when she’s playing her best tennis.
But if it seemed effortless, the reality was that she had to work hard, run hard, to take that first set.
And halfway through that second set, as Halep’s legs clearly had several more kilometers in then, Stephens’s level dropped. Her feet no longer danced. She appeared to be starting to feel it physically.
“She raised her game, raised her level. Not much you can really do about that. I competed the best I could, and the better player won the match today,” Stephens said. “Not very many players ever get to a Grand Slam final. So the fact that I have won one and been in another final in such a short period of time, I’m very optimistic and very pleased with myself. I’m not satisfied, but I am proud of myself.”
By the time Halep was two breaks ahead in the third set, she may well have been past any negative thoughts from a year ago, on the same court.
On that June day 12 months ago, the Romanian led unseeded 20-year-old Latvian Jelena Ostapenko by a set and a break. But Halep played not to win, but hoping that the inexperienced Ostapenko would lose.
And Ostapenko wouldn’t lose.
“When I started to win games, I said that last year happened to me, same thing, I was set and a break up and I lost the match. So I said there is a chance to come back and win it,” Halep said. “So I believed in that, and my game was more relaxed. I could make more things on court, and that’s why I could win.”
Turning a difficult history around
Last year, Halep slept poorly before the match against Ostapenko. This year, she slept well.
Still, the timelines of last year’s final and this year’s final were always in the forefront of her mind.
With the help of a sports psychologist, Halep has come to terms with the fact that her mind may always be her greatest foe when it comes to aspiring to her greatest triumphs.
The secret may have been not to try to eliminate what cannot be erased, but to find ways of accepting it, embracing it somehow, and overcoming it that way.
And all that hard work on her “best” weakness paid off on Saturday.
The point at 3-0 in the third set, a break point to put a double break in the bank, was the clincher. Halep’s legs got her to the drop shot, a backhand smash earned her the break.
“I remember last year – I had last year and this year in my mind all match – when, at 3-3, I think, in the third set, she hit the net and the ball was going, like, five meters out and came back to my court. So I remember that,” Halep said. “I said, if I did this point, so has to be mine this match. I was confident after that.”
Different words from Coach Cahill
Coach Darren Cahill, the Aussie whose stern talk to his charge during the Miami Open last year during a coaching consult – and short-lived resignation – seems to have helped put Halep on the champion’s road, had the same advice for Halep before her first three major finals.
He told her that getting to the final was a big deal, and to just enjoy it.
This time, Cahill had different words.
“You’re going to take it. You’re going to go on court and just thinking you have to take it, not waiting for the opponent to give it to you,” Halep said. “So he gave me confidence, and he put a little bit pressure on myself that I have to go there and win it. So maybe that’s why I won it, and it worked.”
It takes a top-shelf coach to understand that, for this fourth final, a little pressure was something that would work for Halep this time, not against her.
And if she didn’t take his advice in the first set, the 26-year-old put it resolutely into action to catch up – and then to cross the finish line.
For awhile now, Halep had been part of an accomplished but oft-maligned club, that of players who have been ranked No. 1 without winning a Grand Slam.
Amélie Mauresmo of France was in that club, before she finally got on the board. Neither Dinara Safina nor Jelena Jankovic ever won one.
Caroline Wozniacki happily ripped off that scarlet “S” (for Slamless) when she defeated Halep to win the Australian Open in January.
And now, Halep has done it as well. Better still, she did it while ranked No. 1.
Nice, round numbers make it fate
The title comes exactly 40 years after her countrywoman Virginia Ruzici won Roland Garros, at age 23.
Ruzici, now a Paris resident, is Halep’s manager.
The title also comes exactly 10 years after Halep won the junior French Open girls’ singles title in 2008, and became the No. 1-ranked junior in the world.
She had, with one exception, been mostly a third-round loser at the junior Slams, although she had won numerous lower-grade titles.
But Halep lost just one set in taking that 2008 title, to countrywoman Elena Bogdan in the final. And then, as French Open junior champion and world No. 1 junior, she ended her junior career.
This victory in Paris won’t end her pro career. In fact, it may well be a new beginning.
For there will no longer be any doubt – whether external, or in the recesses of Halep’s mind – that she’s good enough to win a Grand Slam title.
Now, she’s done it.
“I kissed (the trophy) many times to be sure that it’s going to stay in my heart forever. It’s heavy, it’s beautiful. And always when I was seeing the pictures with it, I dreamed to have it, to touch it,” Halep said. “And now it’s a special moment and I’m really happy that it’s mine.”
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.
PARIS – The draw decreed that friends and countrywomen Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, who met in the U.S. women’s singles final nine months ago, cannot repeat that in Paris.
But they could meet in the semis.
And that in itself would be a tremendous accomplishment on (the non-European players’ mantra) their “least-favorite surface”.
But as impressive as their runs have already been, Stephens and Keys face absorbing tests Sunday.
They play lower-ranked but very much in-form players. And for both, they are first-time meetings.
The “unpronounceable” opponent
Keys defeated a pair of Americans (Sachia Vickery, Caroline Dolehide) – both younger and less accomplished – fairly routinely in the first two rounds. On Friday, Keys found herself up against the equally hard-hitting Japanese player Naomi Osaka, the Indian Wells champion.
It could have been a battle royale. But on this day, Osaka was not up to the task early and Keys was on a roll – at least initially. She wavered a little in closing it out, and Osaka made much more of a contest of it. But in the end, she was through.
“Even seeing how she raised her level in the second set was, you know, a lot different from the last time we played each other, so you can tell that she’s definitely getting better and better and making smarter decisions. So I think luckily I’m still a little bit older, so pulled out the veteran moves today,” Keys said of Osaka.
“I feel like her attitude was really great today and I never really saw her get overly down on herself. More than anything, I think she just played really smart at times.”
House call for Dr. Buzarnescu
On Sunday, Keys faces a completely different challenge in No. 31 seed Mihaela Buzarnescu of Romania.
Buzarnescu’s back story is one of early promise, bottomless struggle, and second acts. She rose to the top of the juniors in a quality era; the draws of her tournaments back then are sprinkled with mentions of Radwanska, Wozniacki, Azarenka, Cibulkova and others.
But her body betrayed her for a decade. A shoulder injury right as she was transitioning from the juniors the pros put her out, cost her some sponsorships just when she needed the help. And two surgeries on her left knee cost her multiple years, during which time she worked to earn a PhD.
She managed to keep going financially by playing professional interclub matches in various countries. And if you look at her match record, she was literally playing almost every week. She went from the Australian Open qualifying last January right to the lowest-level pro events in Turkey for weeks on end after that.
And then, a twist in the tale, per the New York Times. Last spring, playing team matches in the Netherlands, the pain in the knee was suddenly … gone. She was ranked just inside the top 400 then. She finished 2017 ranked No. 56.
And on Friday, she upset one of the pre-tournament favorites, No. 4 Elina Svitolina of Ukraine, in straight sets.
Into the unknown for Keys
At 30, this is only Buzarnescu’s second visit to Paris. She lost in the second round of qualifying once before, all the way back in 2012. In her debut, she is seeded and on a roll.
For Keys, the challenges come with Buzarnescu’s leftyness, and with the unknown quantity that she is. Not surprisingly, the two have never faced each other. They are seven years apart in age, and Keys hasn’t set foot in the ITF circuit since she was 17 years old.
“I have not played — I don’t know how to pronounce her last name so I won’t say it. I’m going to rely on my lovely coaches to help me out there and give me a game plan, and then just going to go out and hopefully execute it well,” Keys said. “I know that she’s seeded and I always see her name. I just haven’t been able to watch any of her matches. That’s more what I mean when I say I don’t know her. It’s also kind of refreshing and nice to play someone you have never played before.”
A victory would put her in the quarterfinals for the first time in Paris, against either No. 26 Barbora Strycova, or unseeded Yulia Putintseva.
That’s the section of the draw that contained defending champion Jelena Ostapenko and No. 9 seed Venus Williams, both of whom exited in the first round.
So it’s a great opportunity.
Stephens escapes against Giorgi
There were some breathtaking rallies during Stephens’s third-round match against Camila Giorgi on Saturday, a high-octane encounter that had been postponed 24 hours by rain late on Friday.
And somehow, the US Open champion survived. She was down a break early in the third set. Giorgi served for the match twice – at 5-4, and 6-5 – only to be broken. Stephens sneaked out the last two games, and the match.
Her match Sunday won’t be quite as hard-hitting, but she will face a very in-form player in Anett Kontaveit of Estonia.
As with Keys, Stephens isn’t overly familiar with her opponent. In this case, as well, it will be a first career meeting.
“I don’t think I have ever played her, so I think it will be a good match. Obviously she had a good win today (against Petra Kvitova). … Looking forward to it, and obviously playing fourth round of a Grand Slam is always a good opportunity,” Stephens said.
“Not much, just what I have seen in the last couple of weeks being in Europe and seeing her have some good results. Yeah, basically that. Just what I have seen in the last couple weeks.”
Kontaveit an in-form player
Both Kontaveit and Stephens were top-five juniors. But they were three years apart – practically a generation in junior tennis.
Kontaveit went 9-3 through Stuttgart, Madrid and Miami. She defeated Venus Williams twice. And on each occasion, she lost to the eventual champion: Karolina Pliskova in Stuttgart, Petra Kvitova in Madrid and Elina Svitolina in Rome.
Stephens did not have the same kind of clay-court campaign leading up to the French Open, as she played Fed Cup and also caught her breath after winning a big title in Miami, near the area in which she grew up. But if there’s an advantage she has over Kontaveit, it’s that she knows now how to peak at a major.
There is no advantage for either player in terms of the short turnaround. Both their third-round matches were postponed in the late going Friday evening, and both played them Saturday. And both had good tests.
If Stephens can win, she would play the winner between No. 2 seed Caroline Wozniacki and No. 14 seed Daria Kasatkina.
And after reaching the round of 16 four straight years from 2012-15, and again this year, it would be a new career best-effort in Paris.
MIAMI, Fla. – To pick apart the weaknesses in French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko’s game, you need a few specific skills.
You have to be consistent, and willing to change up the pace and spin to throw off her rhythm.
You have to be fast, to run down enough laser shots to lure her into going for a little too much. And you have to be aggressive on serve return, to make the 20-year-old Latvian pay for those 66 mile-an-hour serves that beg to be punished.
Most of all, you have to be able to shake off the large numbers of winners that she will hit, win or lose, hot or not.
American Sloane Stephens, herself a Grand Slam champion at the US Open last summer, did all of those things.
She hit just six winners, and made a lot of errors. But she exposed the holes in Ostapenko’s game with her legs and her patience, winning the Miami Open final 7-6 (5), 6-1 Saturday.
“I knew that I was just going to have to run a lot of balls down. The way that she plays is she has a very aggressive style, and sometimes you can’t outhit her or outrun her. You just kind of have to accept that she’s going to hit some really great shots. I think that’s what I did best today,” Stephens said.
“When she was hitting great shots, I just was, like, Too good, and moved on. I think that’s what helped me kind of get through that breaker. I just accepted that some good shots were going to be hit and just didn’t harp on it too much.”
It is the second-biggest title of Stephens’s career after the momentum win in New York. Both have come on American soil. In fact, four of Stephens’s six titles have come in the U.S. She won in Charleston in 2016 and in Washington, D.C. in 2015.
Notably, Stephens has made six finals in her career – and won the title every time.
Too many errors, not enough winners
Ostapenko hit 25 winners. But she made 48 unforced errors – 29 in the first set alone, more than enough to give Stephens the set just on her errors alone.
She’s always going to make errors. But if the winners number approaches the errors number, Ostapenko is in her comfort zone. On this day, she was not.
“I’m playing the worst tennis ever,” Ostapenko moaned to coach David Taylor when he came out for an on-court consult with his charge already down a set and 4-1. Actually, she was not. Stephens simply had the tools to disarm her.
The Latvian was very gracious at the net afterwards, and in her trophy presentation speech. For her, the months after the French Open title have featured some bumps in the road.
But at this Miami Open, Ostapenko defeated No. 4 seed Elina Svitolina and No. 9 Petra Kvitova in straight sets. And she won all five tiebreaks she played. She also withstood a hearty challenge from American qualifier Danielle Collins in the semifinals.
The inexperienced Collins was somewhat of a gift draw at that stage of the tournament. But she had momentum on her side, and even had a set point against Ostapenko in the first set.
“Comparing to the other matches I watched her play this week, she was moving really well. She was changing the pace. She was serving sometimes kick, sometimes going for it. I think she’s a great player,” Ostapenko said.
“Sometimes I was going aggressive when I didn’t have to. In the first set it was working pretty well. Then some moments I think I was – I stepped a little bit back. I had to step forward, like, in the court to play the balls in the court so take away time from her, which I didn’t, so probably that’s why I lost the match.”
Finally in the top 10
Stephens, who needed some time after that US Open win six months ago to rest, process, get healthy and reload, certainly wasn’t ready in Australia two months ago. But she hould find this title gives her wings going into the meaty part of the schedule.
“I made sure after Australia I got in the best shape possible. I really just focused on myself and made sure that I was the best version of me,” she sad. ‘Whatever people said, whatever, it is what it is, but now I’m here and I have this beautiful trophy, and no one will ever be able to take that away from me, so I’m just going to walk with my head high and, you know, embrace it.”
Stephens will need wings, given her predilection for home soil. But at the same time, she has everything to gain. The 25-year-old didn’t even start playing until Wimbledon last year, after foot surgery. She has just 11 computer ranking points to defend until the Rogers Cup in Montreal, in August.
There’s a fair gap between No. 10 and the top players; for example, she’s more than 1,000 points behind No. 8 Venus Williams. But there is a move to be made, and Stephens’s game can translate well to clay.
She has played the French Open five times, and four times she reached the round of 16. Each time, she lost to a player who was no worse than the No. 6 seed. And all four of those players were either former French Open champions or finalists.
Next up, the Volvo Car Open
Ostapenko hasn’t entered any events until Stuttgart, the last week of April.
But Stephens will immediately head to Charleston, where she won the tournament (and the Volvo) the last time she played it in 2016.
As the No. 4 seed, Stephens will have a first-round bye, and a few days to regroup. She’ll meet the winner of a match between Bernarda Pera and Jana Cepelova in the second round.
Now, of course, the US Open champion will arrive in Mercedes, as the brand’s new ambassador.
The two share an agent, John Tobias. And as of this week, they also share a clothing sponsor, Nike.
Bouchard is not playing doubles this week in Hobart.
Stephens, who is making her 2018 debut, is paired up with French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in Sydney.
D.C. Dream Run
The first-time team had a great run in D.C. in early August, falling to Renata Voracova and Shuko Aoyama in the final. They upset the No. 3 seeds in the first round. And in the semifinals, they overcame a 1-6 first set to beat the No. 1 seeds, Sania Mirza and Monica Niculescu, in the match tiebreak.
It was only Stephens’s second tournament back after missing nearly a year with a foot problem that required surgery. She lost in the first round of the singles to Simona Halep. But the summer ended well, as she won the US Open.
Bouchard had another great run in doubles later in the season, in her final tournament of the year in Luxembourg. The Canadian teamed up with Kirsten Flipkens, and reached the final.
If there were going to be any suspense in the coming months about whether Canadian Genie Bouchard would return to Fed Cup action in the first round of the 2018 event, it was quashed on Monday.
The New York Open, which is the newly relocated Memphis Open men’s ATP Tour event, announced that Bouchard along with US Open champion Sloane Stephens, John McEnroe and James Blake will be taking part in a tournament-opening exhibition Feb. 11.
On Feb. 11, the Canadian Fed Cup team will be playing the second day of its first-round World Group II tie in Cluj-Napoca, Romania.
The US team, of which Stephens was a part last weekend in a victorious effort against Belarus in the championship final, will be in Asheville, NC hosting the Netherlands in its first-round tie.
So that’s that.
No Fed Cup, no Doha
Bouchard last played Fed Cup in April 2015 in Montreal, when Canada faced the same Romania team (minus Simona Halep) to remain in World Group I.
Ranked No. 7 in the world at the time, the Canadian lost her singles matches against Alexandra Dulgheru and Andreea Mitu.
The week following Fed Cup week is the Premier 5 tournament in Doha, UAE. And the appearance could cost Bouchard that tournament as well.
The Canadian’s current ranking stands at No. 81, and she has over 300 ranking points to defend in January at Sydney and the Australian Open. She would most likely need to play the qualifying (unless Doha is planning to give her a wild card).
Obviously, with this commitment, she couldn’t be in the Middle East that same weekend to play it.