The Calm of Sloane Stephens

Sloane Stephens doesn’t grunt when she hits her groundstrokes. She coos, gently, sort of dove-like—even when the shot in question is an eighty-mile-per-hour backhand, down the line, that she has thrown her whole body into. Long-legged and quick as she is, there is no flurry as she moves toward a ball. She glides. And her face is as relaxed as that of any woman in tennis. It reveals what she’s thinking and feeling only when she wins a match; approaching the net for a handshake or hug with an opponent, her smile—roused by relief, no doubt, tennis being tennis, but likely delight and satisfaction, too—broadens, and broadens some more.

On Thursday afternoon, on Court Philippe-Chatrier, at Roland Garros, Stephens had plenty to smile about. She defeated her friend and fellow-American Madison Keys in their semifinal match at the French Open, 6–4, 6–4. The two faced off in the U.S. Open final last year—and Stephens won then, too, 6–3, 6–0, with Keys jangly and rushed from the outset and in near-meltdown mode by the end. This was a better match. Still, it was not as close as the score line might suggest. Keys served well, and pounced on a number of Stephens’s second serves for winners. But, nearly every time a rally got under way, Stephens dictated the action. Her win will propel her into the Top Five when the new W.T.A. rankings are released next week. No American not named Williams has been there since Lindsay Davenport, twelve years ago.

The key to Stephens’s game is that she has so many ways to win a point—or better, ways to not lose one. She is a great defender, able to race balls down in the corner and get enough shape on her returns, arcing both forehands and backhands high and deep, to buy her time to get back into position. She also can move forward in a flash: when Keys tried drop shots, Stephens raced them down, too.

Stephens is not just a defender, though. She can flatten out her shots, even on the run, and hit stinging, go-for-it winners. And she knows how to construct a point, with patterns as varied as anyone on the tour—those who try to guess the direction of a Stephens backhand are often caught leaning the wrong way. When facing a pure power player, like Keys, Stephens uses topspin to move her opponent back—Keys spent much of the match hitting flat groundstrokes from five or six feet behind the baseline, leaving too many of them short or in the net. And Stephens, befitting her Zen-calm court presence, has become a player capable of remarkable consistency. She had only eleven unforced errors on Thursday. Keys had forty-one.

What Stephens has yet to find, as a twenty-five-year-old now in mid-career, is a way to be a consistently imposing player, tournament to tournament, on tour. In 2013, she upset Serena Williams in a quarter-final match at the Australian Open, a win that announced her arrival. She then lost her first matches in Doha, Dubai, and Indian Wells. The following year, I watched her lose a second-round match at the U.S. Open to Sweden’s Johanna Larsson, then the ninety-sixth-ranked player in the world. (Stephens made more than sixty unforced errors in that match.) Stephens suffered a foot fracture in 2016, which required surgery, and spent eleven months sidelined before making an astounding return last summer that culminated in her U.S. Open championship. She then played two tournaments in China, losing in the opening round in both. She won the Miami Open in March, which buoyed her ranking, and she was seeded tenth at the French Open. In her last clay-court tune-up before arriving in Paris, at a small tournament in Nuremberg, she lost, again, in the first round.

The inability to sustain success is not unique to Stephens on the women’s tour. You may find this puzzling, or exasperating, or exciting, depending on what you look for in sports. On Saturday, in the final, Stephens will play Simona Halep, the current world No. 1—a player who regularly goes deep into tournaments these days, but who, unlike Stephens, has never won a major. Both players can scramble, both can create, and both can summon the power to go from defense to offense like that. It’s likely to come down to the more elusive qualities that govern consistency: focus, confidence, nerves. In tennis, it so often does.

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