Stephens keeps smiling through pain barrier
Paris, June 8 (AFP) Sloane Stephens spent 11 months sidelined by a left foot injury and the surgery that followed, never dreaming that less than a year after her return she would be one match from a second Grand Slam title.
But the 25-year-old American, who had reached only one major semi-final before her injury woes, could do just that by beating Simona Halep in Saturday's French Open final to add to her US Open crown from last year.
Just six weeks after being ranked 957 in the world, Stephens claimed her maiden Grand Slam title by thrashing good friend Madison Keys 6-3, 6-0 at Flushing Meadows last September.
She saw off her compatriot again on Thursday in straight sets at Roland Garros to set up the clash with world number one Halep.
"After not playing for 11 months, it's some great results," said Stephens, who also won the Miami Open title earlier this year.
"Obviously a lot of hard work went into it, a lot of adversity, a lot of ups and downs.
"A lot of emotions, 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 matured a little bit and have recognised the opportunities when they have been presented." When she started her injury comeback at Wimbledon last July with a first-round loss to Alison Riske, even a return to the top 100 seemed a long way off.
But she found form with back-to-back semi-finals in Toronto and Cincinnati before winning the US Open as the world number 82.
It hasn't all been plain sailing since, though, as she suffered a severe hangover after her New York triumph and failed to win in the rest of 2017.
Stephens only managed to end an eight-match losing streak at a low-level event in Acapulco in February, but claimed her sixth WTA title in Miami the following month.
That determination when things aren't going her way has served Stephens well again at Roland Garros -- she arrived in Paris after a poor clay-court season that had yet to yield a quarter-final.
"For me staying calm is the most important thing," added Stephens, who called herself a "real fighter" after the US Open.
"And then being able to take advantage of the confidence that you do have when you're playing deep into a Slam is super key." Stephens only broke into the world's top 10 for the first time by winning in Miami, but will leave Roland Garros ranked fourth no matter what happens on Saturday.
With very few points to defend until the return to North American hardcourts later this summer, Stephens could well continue that rise further in the coming months, a remarkable turnaround for a player who said she can't remember what she was doing when Jelena Ostapenko stunned Halep in the French Open final 12 months ago.
"I have no idea what I was doing. But I remember, like, the first week of French Open, I was at a wedding in Ireland. So that was pretty cool." Perhaps her ability to always get through tough times on court comes from putting the importance of tennis into perspective.
Stephens is the daughter of former NFL player John Stephens, who played five seasons with the New England Patriots before joining Green Bay and Kansas City. His final season came just months after Sloane was born.
He died in a 2009 car accident, with his daughter turning professional just weeks later.
"Tennis is very situational," Stephens said last year.
"Once you realise that it's not life or death out there, you can turn a tennis match around. If you work really hard, if you fight your way through and fight your way back, you can make some things happen for yourself