Sloane eyes another Paris fairytale

 - Reem Abulleil

Last year's RG finalist is thrilled to be back at her favourite tournament.

Sloane Stephens practises© Julien Crosnier / FFT

World No.7 Sloane Stephens is back on her beloved Parisian clay, hoping to replicate the form that saw her reach her maiden Roland-Garros final last year.

The former US Open champion enjoyed a first hit on the new Court Simonne-Mathieu on Tuesday, joined by her coach Sven Groeneveld, whom she hired at the start of this month.

“It’s really pretty. Obviously it’s new, so it’s very cool. Yeah, it’s beautiful,” Stephens told of the new 5,000-seat stadium that is surrounded by a greenhouse and is located in the south-east corner of the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil.

Stephens, who lost the Roland-Garros title decider last year to Simona Halep in three sets, had a strong 2018, winning Miami and making three more finals, in Paris, Montreal and at the season-closer in Singapore.

This year it's been a tougher start for the 26-year-old but in the last few weeks, she got engaged to US football star Jozy Altidore, added Groeneveld to her team, and reached her first semi-final of the season at the clay-court event in Madrid.

Sloane Stephens and coach Sven Groeneveld during practice© Julien Crosnier / FFT

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.

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My two trophies🏆

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“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.”

New beginnings

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.