When Sloane Stephens beat fellow American Madison Keys to reach the finals of this year’s French Open, I began preparing my appetite for a little crow.
Madison had been playing well on the red dirt at Roland Garros and, though it’s not her favorite surface, I was among those who predicted she would avenge her loss to Sloane in last year’s US Open final.
But Sloane prevailed once again over her good friend, and I thought… Oh, oh, Sloane’s about to make a liar out of me!Embed from Getty Images
You see, in a February blogpost, I questioned Sloane’s heart and concluded that she lacked the fire to win another Grand Slam. This came following her disappointing first-round loss at the Australian Open in January, her eighth consecutive defeat after she won the US Open last summer.
It wasn’t the first time I had taken Sloane to task for what I felt was lackluster play, and I am not the only one who has expressed doubt about her competitive drive. Chris Evert, tennis commentator and winner of 18 Grand Slam titles, also criticized Sloane after her Australian Open loss.
But almost immediately after I wrote Sloane’s tennis obituary, she seemed to bounce back to life. I began to see more intensity, more fist pumps, more spirit – albeit all in her own quiet way – in her matches.
Sloane is never going to be the demonstrative type — a la Serena Williams, with loud “c’mons” on the court — to get fired up. That’s just not her style. But I began to sense that she really does want to win.
After the loss Down Under, Sloane made it to the quarterfinals of her next tournament in Acapulco, Mexico. At the BNP Paribas tournament in Indian Wells, a Women’s Tennis Association premier mandatory event touted by many as the Fifth Grand Slam, Sloane defeated hard-hitting Victoria Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open winner, before losing in the third round.
In the next tournament, the Miami Open, another premier mandatory contest, Sloane proved again she has the game and fortitude to be a champion. On her way to the title, she knocked off the WTA’s No. 3-ranked Garbine Muguruza, No. 10 Angelique Kerber and Azarenka again. In the final, she defeated last year’s French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko.
It was then that I first began thinking maybe I was too quick to write off Sloane.
In the third round of the French Open, Sloane showed grit and mental toughness to come from behind to win a hard-fought three-set match against Camila Giorgi. The third set was 8-6.
Through the first set and first two games of the second set of the finals, Sloane was on her way to proving I was wrong about her being a one-slam wonder. And I found myself cheering for her.
But her opponent, World No. 1 Simona Halep of Romania, became super aggressive, while Sloane’s energy level seemed to wane. Halep prevailed in three sets to win her first Grand Slam title.
While Sloane lost the match, she won my respect and admiration.
During the match, the commentators reflected on the outstanding prospects for the future of women’s tennis in the United States, noting that for the second straight year, an American won the French Open girls’ title.
While acknowledging the future looks bright for the U.S., Lindsay Davenport pointed out so does the present. She singled out Sloane as an example.
“Look out for this young lady here,” Davenport said, noting that Sloane has blossomed from prospect to star. “Everybody’s path to the top is different. For Sloane, maybe it took a few years.”
As the French Open runner-up, Sloane pocketed $1.3 million in prize money and picked up 1,000 ranking points to reach a career high No. 4 in the world. She also supplanted Venus Williams as the top-ranked American woman.
Sloane still may not win another Grand Slam. And that’s okay, given all that it takes to walk away with one of the four most prestigious trophies in professional tennis. But I now believe she can.