While many Americans admit to feeling uncomfortable on the red dirt – there are far less clay courts in the United States compared to other surfaces and the ones that exist are mostly green Har-Tru – Stephens considers it her favourite surface and has developed a game that is perfect for it.
Stephens hasn’t lost before the third round at Roland Garros since she fell in her opener while making her tournament debut in 2011. The Parisian event is her most productive and consistent of all the Grand Slams, with her 20 match wins here the most she’s amassed at a single major.
“I always liked playing on clay. Growing up in Florida, you play a lot on clay. Then obviously getting to red clay and then Europe and stuff like that, it’s really different and I was just like, ‘wow, I really like this, this is good for me’,” Stephens told reporters in Madrid of her love for the surface.
“There wasn’t a defining moment [that made me love it], but I think the red clay in Europe is different level.”
Stephens and Groeneveld are only three weeks into their partnership but their communication already seems to be flowing. They’ve known each other for years, since he was the one who recruited Stephens for adidas when she was a junior.
“He's very structured and that's what I need,” explains Stephens.
The Dutchman, who previously coached two-time Roland-Garros champion Maria Sharapova, looked pleased with Tuesday’s practice session that included serves, baseline rallies, drop shot drills, and an impromptu tutorial from Groeneveld on how to read a ball mark on clay.
They both appeared to be in good spirits as Stephens continues to build the relationship with her new coach.
“Obviously if you stay positive you’ll allow yourself to have a better result,” said Stephens, who is 14-9 win-loss so far this season.
“I think in Madrid, my first semi-final there was great. Obviously working with a new coach has gone well so far. Just looking forward to the rest of the season and obviously my favourite tournament of the year is Roland-Garros.”
This time last year, Stephens was less than 12 months into her return from a lengthy left foot injury that required surgery. She made two Grand Slam finals in her first four majors back and reflects fondly on her journey to the title match here a year ago.
“It was a good two weeks. I hadn’t been back a full year yet, so it was more of just enjoying it and like my first couple of tournaments back on clay after my foot injury. It was exciting,” she says.
Gracious in defeat
Despite her loss to Halep in the final, after leading the Romanian by a set and a break, Stephens walked away from Paris proud of her effort and reserved some beautiful words for her opponent.
“I think she's had a tough journey. I think winning here is very special for her and I'm glad she finally got her first slam,” Stephens said.
“It's a beautiful thing, very special. No matter how hard the adversity that you go through, there is always light at the end of the tunnel, and I'm glad she finally got her light.”
Stephens looks and sounds increasingly positive that she'll get her own light back too.