Stephens takes out Keys, will play for ti­tle

The Mercury News Weekend - - SPORTS - By Chuck Culpep­per The Washington Post

PARIS » A bushel of baf­fling facts back­light the on­go­ing hey­day of the charis­matic 25-year- old Amer­i­can Sloane Stephens. There’s that No. 957 rank­ing she held at the dawn of last Au­gust. There are the last nine Grand Slams she played un­til Wim­ble­don 2016, clogged with four first-round de­feats, one measly fourth round and a deep­en­ing of her sta­tus as an af­ter­thought. There’s the 11-month hia­tus that fol­lowed — the bro­ken foot, the 2017 Aus­tralian Open spent at home on a couch, the cast.

And now that Stephens has taken her light­ning 2017 U. S. Open ti­tle and piled a French Open fi­nal berth atop it af­ter her 6- 4, 6- 4 pas­sage through dear friend Madi­son Keys on Thurs­day, there’s this ques­tion: Where did she spend last French Open, any­way?

The first week, she said, she was at a wed­ding in Ire­land.

The sec­ond week, her coach and Chicago ten­nis academy founder Ka­mau Mur­ray said: “We were in Chicago. In Chicago. In­doors. On the hard court. Get­ting ready for grass. Barely walk­ing. Play­ing ten­nis next to a bunch of 5- and 6-year- old scream­ing kids. You know, to be here, from there, I think, is re­ward­ing, be­cause those times were not easy. You’re stuck with me, in­doors, in my city, and I’m driv­ing you, and you can’t leave un­til I let you leave? That’s not a good place to be.”

It’s all a big heap to grasp, even if both Mur­ray and Stephens grasp it log­i­cally, as the con­tin­u­a­tion of a process un­der­way since Novem­ber 2015 when they be­gan col­lab­o­rat­ing. Some­how, in the 2018 French Open women’s fi­nal on Satur­day, the player wob­bling her way back 12 months ago will op­pose the cen­tral fig­ure in a global ten­nis drama fea­tur­ing Ro­ma­nian flags in the stands, concerning whether top- ranked Si­mona Halep will fi­nally get to know that feel­ing of hav­ing won a Grand Slam tour­na­ment.

Three pre­vi­ous times, she played fi­nals, in­clud­ing the 2017 French Open and the 2018 Aus­tralian Open. Three pre­vi­ous times, she was un­both­ered enough to reach third sets. Three pre­vi­ous times, the other player — be it Maria Shara­pova, Je­lena Ostapenko or Caro­line Woz­ni­acki — won that third set.

So here comes a fourth chance af­ter a blaz­ing show­ing against Gar­bine Mugu­ruza, the two- time ma­jor- ti­tle win­ner who had looked like a champ here un­til Thurs­day. Af­ter Halep’s 6-1, 6- 4 win, Mugu­ruza said: “Her shots were very, very deep and very ag­gres­sive, con­stantly.” Halep said: “I feel calm.” Some­how, this plucky, re­li­able Grand Slam fi­nal main­stay, Halep, is about to op­pose a player who lately had nine mostly clunky Grand Slams and then an 11-month hia­tus, yet the lat­ter will be the one with the ma­jor ti­tle al­ready. It’s log­i­cal whiplash. It’s far less log­i­cal than Rafael Nadal com­ing back from his sus­pended match Thurs­day, re­sum­ing his habit of stretch­ing the hu­man pos­si­bil­i­ties of get­ting back ten­nis balls no- body should get back, im­prov­ing to 84-2 at Roland Gar­ros, fin­ish­ing off Diego Schwartz­man, 4- 6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2, reach­ing the semi­fi­nals, ex­plain­ing he had his wrists taped Wed­nes­day evening only to catch sweat, and ex­plain­ing that his first- set loss dur­ing which Schwartz­man out­played him the pre­vi­ous night tells us only “that I am a hu­man per­son.”

Of less logic but am­ple joy would be Nadal’s semi­fi­nal op­po­nent, Juan Martin del Potro, who fa­mously al­most quit the game, but found another crest with his first French Open semi­fi­nal berth in nine long years, when he edged Marin Cilic, 7- 6 (7- 5), 5-7, 6-3, 7-5. So long ago has it been that he was the semi­fi­nal op­po­nent for Roger Fed­erer’s only French Open ti­tle.

“Yes, well, I thought that af­ter nine years I will play a dif­fer­ent one, not Rafa or Roger,” said del Potro, other­wise so deliri­ously happy that he de­scribed “thoughts that are deeper maybe that shookmy legs a lit­tle­more.”

ALESSANDRA TARANTINO – THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Sloane Stephens re­turns a shot against Madi­son Keys dur­ing their semi­fi­nal match at the French Open on Thurs­day. Stephens won 6-4, 6-4.

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