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 2017 U.S. Open title and piled a French Open final berth atop it after her 6-4, 6-4 passage through 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 drama featuring Romanian flags in the stands, concerning whether No. 1-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 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 nobody 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 “that I am a human person.”
Of less logic but ample joy would be Nadal’s semifinal opponent for Friday, Juan Martin del Potro, who famously almost quit the game with belligerent wrists himself, but on Thursday 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, when Federer had to win the fourth and fifth sets to surpass del Potro.
“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 shook my legs a little bit more.”
The players do come and go in the brutish game of the era, so here’s del Potro, and here’s Stephens.
“There is no, like, formula,” Stephens said. “There’s no right or wrong. It’s just each person is individual and does it on their own time.” For good measure, remember, Stephens threw in a rut between the U.S. Open last September and her one-round Australian Open stay last January, but as everyone aimed to decipher that, and Stephens aimed to refrain from panic because that’s who she is, Murray offers a plausible explanation.
“I think she just wasn’t healthy,” he said. “She played 17 matches in three-and-a-half weeks,” with grinding nine wins against top-20 players. It wasn’t just the body “absorbing all of the wear and tear,” Murray said, but absorbing it “all of a sudden.”
She has torn through this event with one batch of thorns, a third-round tussle with Italy’s Camila Giorgi, who troubles Stephens generally, and who gave way only by 4-6, 6-1, 8-6.
“Out of clarity comes calm,” Murray said, “and I think she knows what she should be doing. She’s clear on who she is as a player. I think she’s clear on who she’s playing. And you know, win or lose, I think that allows you to be calm.”
Stephens used to want to crack the top 10, then finally got there in April. Now, with her all-court game, her ability to absorb the power of others such as Keys, her defense, her offense and her calm, she’s headed for the top five.
She’ll alight there next week, all the way from No. 957.
“I don’t know that I would call the hard road,” Murray said. “I would just call it a road.”