Halep advances to third RG final
Sloane Stephens sets title showdown with Simona Halep after dismantling fellow American Madison Keys in the semi-finals.
Last year Sloane Stephens was ruled out of Roland-Garros with a left foot injury and instead headed to Ireland for a wedding.
Twelve months later and the American will vie for a second Grand Slam title against world No.1 Simona Halep having halted the run of Madison Keys in the Roland-Garros semi-finals on Thursday evening.
Eight months on from their US Open final, Stephens commanded proceedings with a highly efficient display to repeat the result from New York with a 6-4 6-4 victory over her close friend.
"She's No. 1 in the world for a reason,” said Stephens referring to her final opponent in Paris.
Halep, who earlier brushed aside 2016 champion Garbine Muguruza 6-1 6-4 to reach a third Roland-Garros final, holds a favourable 5-2 record facing the 10th seed.
“It's just mainly about competing. No one is going to hand you the match,” stated Stephens, who is unbeaten in six previous Tour-level finals. “It's a Grand Slam final. You have to go out there and get after it and make sure you play every point and try to execute your game plan as best as possible.”
In the first all-American semi-final at Roland-Garros since 2002, Stephens chased down a looping dropshot and then cracked a forehand down the line to chalk up a 2-1 break lead.
Keys showed flashes of the brilliance that booked her semi-final ticket without dropping a set, with two piercing return winners giving her chances to break back, yet Stephens connected with two deliveries that Keys couldn’t cope with and the 10th seed maintained her advantage.
Keys threw in different heights and spins to no avail, while her Fed Cup teammate was absorbing all Keys' power and sensing when to strike. She soared through four straight points in the 10th game to hold to love, win the set and edge towards a second major final.
Keys - who at 23 was the youngest American semi-finalist at the French Open since 21-year-old Serena Williams in 2003 - broke serve to start the second set and was eagerly searching for the shots to brush Stephens off balance.
However Stephens soon built a commanding position, serving for the match at 5-2, and, despite failing to do it there, did so at the second time of asking.
“It's never easy playing someone from your country, let alone someone you actually care about and you're friends with,” admitted Stephens. “It's very difficult. I think when I do play Madi, it's very competitive but it's a little weird. There's not as many, ‘Come ons’ and things like that. We have a lot of respect for each other. It's a little different in that aspect. But I think we always compete well and play good matches.”
Stephens pointed to her off-court work as a reason behind her improved physicality and health, but the Miami Open champion doesn’t have an obvious reason for her run to the silverware showdown in Paris.
“I have just slowly gained momentum. There is no formula. There's no right or wrong. It's just each person is individual and does it on their own time,” explained the 25-year-old, who advanced to four successive fourth rounds at Roland-Garros from 2012 to 2015.
“I'm not trying to break a record. It's just how it's happened for me. I think once I get going in a tournament, I'm pretty consistent, which is good. I just try to keep that going through the finals and just compete to the very last match.
“It's an individual sport, so you kind of have to figure that out to make sure you give yourself the best chance, and I think I do that well some weeks.”
For Keys, who produced by far her best result at Roland-Garros, the result on Thursday was bittersweet.
"I'm obviously really disappointed that I lost today, but I think overall it was a really great tournament for me. I definitely don't think, after I lost in Madrid, I'd be sitting here as a semi-finalist in Roland-Garros," said Keys, having fallen at the first hurdle in the Spanish capital facing wildcard Sara Sorribes Tormo.
"I feel proud about that. And I also think Sloane played incredibly well today. I think it was a much better match for me than the US Open, so lots of positives and I'm trying to remember those right now."