PARIS: Twelve months ago, while Simona Halep was crumbling to defeat in the French Open final, Sloane Stephens was off the tour, attending the wedding of a friend in Ireland.
While Halep’s slump from a set and 3-0 up against Jelena Ostapenko at Roland Garros was in the full glare of the world’s media, Stephens’s own professional crisis was more private but just as devastating.
A foot injury — and then surgery — had put her career on ice for 10 months and her ranking had nosedived to 323 in the world.
However, fast-forward a year and Stephens is a US Open champion, is about to reach at least the number four ranking in the world and on Saturday will take on Halep in the 2018 French Open final.
The 25-year-old can be forgiven if she pinches herself.
She won the US Open in September on a ranking of 83 and just 69 days after returning to the tour following her near year-long absence.
Six weeks earlier, her ranking had been in the twilight zone at 957.
“I think I worked really hard coming back and getting in the gym, and when I was chubby trying to get skinny and when I was out of shape getting back in shape,” she said after seeing off close friend Madison Keys in the semi-finals on Thursday. “I have recognised more things I have needed to do. So when I have gotten in shape and done all the things that my coach asked me to do, I just put it into the universe, like, God, look what I did, help a sister out!”
Stephens’s run to Saturday’s final comes after a roller-coaster year since her US Open stunner.
After New York, she lost her next eight matches, a run encompassing the Asian swing of late 2017 and the early exchanges of 2018, including a demoralising first round exit at the Australian Open.
In fact, her next match win after the US Open did not come until Acapulco in February.
Not to be one who does things half-heartedly, Stephens then captured her first Premier level title at the Miami Open and won both her singles in the United States’ Fed Cup semi-final victory over France.
“I think life came at me fast after the US Open and just kind of regrouping and getting myself together, which I did well, and I started playing better and better,” she explained. “Then obviously had a good result in Miami and Fed Cup. Like, I have just slowly kind of 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.”
Stephens had never previously got past the fourth round in Paris before this year.
Indeed, her Roland Garros campaign this year came close to ending in the third round when Italy’s Camila Giorgi twice served for the match and was within two points of winning.
No surprise then that the charismatic Stephens is not getting too far ahead of herself for Saturday’s final against two-time runner-up and world number one Halep.
“I just do what I have been doing all the days, really. Nothing really too special,” said the American. “I’ll come here Friday, have a hit, have lunch here, go to my room, watch TV, wait till dinner, have dinner, go to sleep. It’s pretty boring. I wish there was something exciting to tell you, but it’s really not.”