When Sloane met Mona

 - Ian Chadband

Ice creams, Louis Vuitton and the Mona Lisa. Win or lose, Sloane Stephens is having a ball in Paris.

Listening to Sloane Stephens wax lyrical about her close encounter with the Mona Lisa last week and her love of wandering down the Champs-Élysées with ice cream in hand, you could easily fancy that you’re talking to some wide-eyed tourist, not a Grand Slam tennis champ ready to knuckle down to serious business at Roland-Garros.

Yet that’s the entertaining Ms. Sloane for you. Like that lady with the mystic smile she so admired in the Louvre last week, the US Open champion doesn’t sound if she cares too much if she’s seen as some great enigma, a charismatic player of sporadic excellence and contrasting moods.

Actually, more than that, Stephens seems just as happy if nobody’s talking about her at all - and while she has a run at another major title, she reckons she’s perfectly content to float beneath the radar, savouring every minute of her latest stay in the city that she loves.

“I just try to enjoy my tennis and everything else here,” Stephens explained in an interview with rolandgarros.com after sweeping through her opening-round match against Arantxa Rus on Sunday in magisterial fashion.

“I hope that they (the pundits) don’t talk about me so nobody pays any attention to me, nobody asks me questions about my chances, nobody says anything - and then when you do have a good result, then okay, it’s a good thing.

“But it’s better when people underestimate you and think you’re not going to do anything. That’s when you get them! Everyone else puts a lot of pressure on you in general so you kind of have to put that aside and live your life and have fun. I just try to live a normal 25-year-old’s life.”

Yet is that possible any more after her striking breakthrough at Flushing Meadows last year? “Well, my normal is different from a lot of people’s normal,” she smiled. “People say to me ‘you’re not normal, you don’t do normal stuff’ but I think I do. I just try to enjoy myself, do all the things that make me happy, keep my schedule the same and make sure I put myself first.”

Enjoying herself here means enjoying more of her beloved Paris. After her early demolition of Rus, Stephens thought to herself: “Probably won’t have to play until Wednesday now, I can get on with it, practise early so I don’t have to see anyone, and have a couple of days in Paris….great, awesome.

“I just love Paris, and enjoy walking around here. I have my favourite restaurants and like to wander down the Champs-Élysées so I can walk by Louis Vuitton and Häagen-Dazs. Oh, I love Häagen-Dazs ice cream - and did you know you can get unlimited Häagen-Dazs here!?

“I just like to hang out and have a nice walk, look at the churches, because it’s not every day you get the pleasure to walk around a great city like this or take a taxi to the Eiffel Tower.

“You can hang out, buy an ice cream, do things you wouldn't normally be able to do too. When you’re at home, you don’t go for a walk, because you think ‘ah, it’s kind of boring’ but I’m happy here to just go off on my own or with my mum, boyfriend (Toronto FC soccer star Jozy Altidore), brother, sister, friend, whatever.”

Sloane Stephens, Roland Garros 2018, Simple Dames, 1er Tour©Philippe Montigny / FFT

And there’s always something new to savour. “There are certain things in life you just have to do. I’ve been here playing in Paris seven years now and I’d never been to the Louvre before so I said to myself, ‘c’mon you’ve got to do better…’ and I went there last Friday only to see Mona.

“Yet the painting’s so small, it was really quite a shock to start with and I’m like ‘what’s the big deal with Mona - I mean seriously!?’ But then I had to get the whole of Mona’s back story and you’re in this room with her and tons of people in there and the whole thing’s really intense. I thought it was so cool.”

Did her audience with La Gioconda inspire her? It looked that way in her opening match and, though she refuses to put pressure on herself in what she sees as a really open draw, Stephens, who first got to the fourth round here as a teenager, evidently feels she has the game on clay to do well. “I would hope that one day I could do really well at a clay-court tournament or here even. I really love it here so I’m hoping for a big result.”

But Stephens will continue to do it in her own way. “I don’t look at who I play next, I don’t want to know who I play, I just go with the flow, do what my coach tells me to do and go out and compete,” she said after the Rus win. (It’s Polish qualifier Magdalena Frech on Wednesday, for your information Sloane!)

“And whatever happens, happens. I’ll keep enjoying it. It’s hard to miserable, it stinks to be miserable. So much better to be happy. Life’s so much better that way…” And being in Paris with Mona and an ice-cream, well, it’s just the best.