Coaching changes set to inspire
Last year's finalist Stephens safely through after stopping Doi in second-set tiebreak.
In the first match contested at Roland-Garros 2019 by last year’s runner-up, the truly intriguing prospect was that old game-show scenario: Will the real Sloane Stephens please stand up?
Would the bona fide “freak of a talent” prevail, the player who her former coach Paul Annacone describes as the most talented woman on the tour after Serena Williams? Or would it be the erratic player who has endured, in her own words, “a rocky first four months of the year”?
A somewhat laboured 6-3, 7-6 (7-4) victory over doughty Misaki Doi of Japan in drizzly conditions on Court Suzanne-Lenglen didn’t provide a resounding answer to that million-dollar question, but it was a win that did the business for Stephens, representing safe passage through to a second-round meeting with Sara Sorribes Tormo, and a nerve-settling basis for a positive campaign.
“I think the first round for everyone is exactly that. Everyone can be nervous, anyone can win, an underdog can beat the No. 1 seed. That's how it is,” said the No.7 seed, whose only defeat in the first round on the Paris clay came on her debut in 2011.
“So it's a little nerve-wracking but for me, once I get through it, I don't feel those butterflies anymore. I'm okay. Like, we got started. Good to go. Let's get it going. Definitely the first round is, like, all right, let's get it out of the way.”
Stephens had arrived in Paris seeking to demonstrate a little extra edge to her game following the appointment of the experienced Sven Groeneveld to her coaching team prior to the Madrid Open. It was a change, she said, that signalled the official start to her 2019 season.
But this was a first meeting between the 2017 US Open champion and the Japanese left-hander, and it was the diminutive player ranked 110 in the world who came on court with a considered game plan and proved pesky to close out. It was Doi’s 15th attempt to secure a first victory over a Top-10 player; a win on Sunday would have also ended her frustrating six-match first-round losing streak at the majors.
Aggressive, tidy, finding lines, depth and corners, and mixing up the pace, Doi resolutely kept trying to find a way to fight back from a first-set deficit.
In the second set, she got her reward in the seventh game, breaking Stephens’ serve to lead 4-3. Having surrendered her own serve, she broke again. Doi’s wily tactics were paying off, only for Stephens to break back again and take the set to a tiebreak.
With a 9-2 record in 2019, the tiebreak is a bizarre form of comfort zone for the American. The No.7 seed duly pulled off the win after one hour and 31 minutes. “She changed it up a little bit and she raised her level. I just had to match her there at the end, and I think I did that pretty well," Stephens said.
"Just keep executing and stay the course.”