Popcorn matches: Day One
"Everything is in order" for No.2 seed Pliskova and 2018 finalist Stephens to go far.
Each woman boasts a stand-out run on the red dirt to suggest a victory in Paris would not be so much a bolt from the blue – Pliskova with a title run in Rome last week, Stephens with a runner-up showing in Paris 12 months ago.
Yet both are more than content standing on the fringes when the spotlight is turned to Grand Slam picks.
Stephens already has one in the bag – from US Open 2017 – while Pliskova has fallen just short at Flushing Meadows 12 months prior.
On recent form, Pliskova can no longer refute she is in with a chance to break her Grand Slam duck in Paris, on what is typically her worst surface.
The 2017 Roland-Garros semi-finalist claimed the biggest clay-court trophy of her career in Rome last week and with former Spanish great Conchita Martinez upping her coaching commitment to full-time earlier this month, even Pliskova admitted she has never been better placed entering the season’s second major.
Karolina Pliskova’s best clay results the last three seasons:— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) May 19, 2019
2017 Roland Garros semifinalist
2018 Stuttgart Champion
2018 Madrid semifinalist
2019 Rome champion pic.twitter.com/PAMgHEbfJk
“I have to go like this [thinking she can win Roland-Garros] because otherwise there is no reason to go at all,” Pliskova said after winning Rome.
“If I go to lose, then you’re going to lose. I have to go with this mindset that my game is good on clay, too.
“Doesn't mean that I won here that I have to go far in Paris. There is still seven matches, so it's two more than here [but] I think this was a good start.”
Pliskova went on a tear Down Under in January, winning the season-opening Brisbane title before she famously derailed Serena Williams’ bid for an eighth Australian Open title when she surged back from 1-5 down and saved four match points in the quarter-finals.
But after she reached her second final of the season in Miami in April, a viral illness struck down the Czech and hampered her clay-court preparations in Stuttgart and Madrid, where early exits ensued.
Finally able to return to full practice in time for Rome, expectations were low.
But as Pliskova said after going all the way to the title, this was often how she found her best.
“I didn't have that many matches on clay before, which is always the key for me to feel better, to feel more confident,” she said.
“When I'm winning, everything’s just going easy, I'm playing without thinking, which is the best.
“I feel confident after I made the title in Rome, so there is no reason why I should not be feeling great.”
Martinez has brought subtle shape to the Czech’s heavy groundstrokes, plus patience and variety to her game.
And who better to put her clay-court fine-tuning into practice with than defending Roland-Garros champion Simona Halep?
“I always enjoy to play her, always,” Pliskova said of the pair’s frequent training sessions. “It's a guarantee that the practice is gonna be a good level, because she always plays good.
“She always fights in the practice. But on the other hand, it's relaxed. We can laugh. We can even talk about stuff, not about tennis.”
For Stephens, a semi-final run in Madrid was enough to suggest another deep run in Paris should not be discounted.
In 2018, as the reigning US Open champion she reached the Roland-Garros final where she pushed Halep.
But her first four months of 2019 were less than ideal for stability after she parted ways with coach Kamau Murray.
Now the American is finding fresh direction. After she recently revealed her engagement to US footballer Jozy Altidore, it was announced she was working with experienced hand Sven Groeneveld.
“I'm not gonna lie, it sucked,” Stephens said. “I wasn't having fun on the court. Just a lot of things were not where they should have been, and I think now with Sven having some structure and having someone who is, ‘This is what we are trying to get, this is what we need to do’, like, everything is in order.”
Having joined Stephens as a Grand Slam champion in 2018, Halep this week spoke of being too happy these days to win.
It was a sentiment to which Stephens could relate.
“Yeah, I think there are points in your career where it's up and down and rocky and then there is no pressure and then there is a ton of pressure,” Stephens said.
“Then there's nobody cares, no one has talked to you, that's when you get your best results. It's very up and down. I definitely get what she's saying.”
Team stability and underrated clay-court credentials have Stephens and Pliskova giving themselves every chance.
As Stephens says, "everything is in order". The rest is up to them whether they step beyond the fringe of the favouritism fray.