By Bill Simons
Paris is for the joyous. Good wine, good love, good times.
But after days of steel gray skies, cold winds, and repeated rain, a certain grimness had gripped this most spirited of towns.
The sun is bright. Clouds have vanished. Temperatures have risen. On a care-free Saturday morning, strangers engaged, children skipped free and even grizzled men—bent and diminished—had a glint in their tired eyes.
This city, the human spirit does renew.
What a day: Four American women—Serena Williams, Sloane Stephens, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, and Jamie Hampton—are into the fourth round of a major for the first time since the ’04 US Open, when Serena and Venus Williams, Lindsay Davenport, and Jennifer Capriati did it. Plus, we had yet another John Isner marathon, and sadly, Jelena Gencic, 76, passed on. The Serbian legend had coached Novak Djokovic, as well as Monica Seles, Goran Ivanisevic, Iva Majoli, and Mima Jausovec. But today, our main focus was on one fiesty 20-year old: Stephens.
It was predictable. Earlier this year, after Stephens, then 19, beat her supposed idol, Serena Williams, to reach the Australian Open semis, the spotlight focused on the wide-eyed L.A. kid. There were tweets from celebs, appearances on Ellen and coverage in Time and Vogue (and yeah, the cover of Inside Tennis.)
Life was sweet, times were innocent. Long before a battle of barbs broke out between Sloane and Serena, Stephens offered dreamy kudos about Williams, saying she “is like our god. She is like a tennis god.” But imposing clouds of pressure soon arrived and the weight of expectations descended. Sweet Sloane’s wide-eyed, free-form sass and “let’s dance in the meadow” spontaneity vanished like a choking player’s touch on a drop shot at crunch time.
She struggled on court.
There were a string of humbling losses, and a nightmare Fed Cup tie, where she was benched. Smiles seemed like an endangered species. Off court, Stephens mixed it up with Serena Williams, which is not something you really want to do. (Just check in with Jennifer Capriati, Justine Henin, or Dinara Safina.) Once so innocent and unencumbered, Stephens seemed to carry the world on her sculpted shoulders.
She had survived the death of her dad, her stepfather, and an emotional implosion in Spain early in 2012. But now she was sullen, indrawn, and stuck with an intense game face that wouldn’t go away. Here was one unhappy camper.
But at Roland Garros, Stephens has turned things around, overcoming some spotty play to defeat Marina Erakovic—a little-known New Zealander ranked No. 87—and reach the fourth round.
It appears that Stephens is back in the saddle. For the first time since her Australian glory in January, she’s won three matches in a row. For the second straight year, she’s reached the final 16 at Roland Garros. Once again, she’s delivering at a major.
And in the interview room, the old Sloane Stephens sizzle has made a return.
One reporter observed that she appeared pretty calm on court. “Most of the time I’m like that,” she replied. “If I’m not being weird or going crazy.” Soon she was talking about the French and how they pretend not to know English, but really do.
IT then began to ask, “If you could magically change one thing that’s happened between now and the Australian Open—” Stephens jumped in: “Magically change one thing? Does it have to be tennis-related?”
“Of course not,” we responded.
Sloane then offered a zinger, saying “That boys weren’t so stupid.” With that, we knew sheriff Stephens was back in town. If a 20-year old can joke freely and publicly about boys, all is cool.
Stephens then spoke about the French Open. “Obviously this is my favorite tournament, so I would really, really, really love to win … But that’s a long shot. I think every Grand Slam I’m getting closer and closer and closer. You just got to keep plugging away, and hopefully eventually I’ll have that big trophy … I love Grand Slams … maybe it’s more money, more points … I have no idea.”
Next, she returned to the subject of France. “The first time I came to Paris I just fell in love with the Eiffel Tower and being able to walk on the Champs Élysées going shopping, and going to Häagen-Dazs every day,” she enthused. “I’ve loved it from the first time I got here. I love it more and more every year because I keep finding new stores. So it’s really good to me.”
We asked what part of Paris she would want to bring back to L.A.
“The entire Eiffel Tower,” she quipped, going on to confide that everyday here she has some macadamia nut brittle, and wants to write the company that makes it, so she can ask them to sell it in the US.
Later, Stephens put things in perspective. “I’ve had so many crazy things happen to me,” she said. “But like they tell you, you just work hard and good things happen.
When told that she seems now to be having more fun, she replied, “I don’t think it has anything to do with tennis … It’s just I’m really enjoying myself off the court. I mean, more shopping like every day I’m buying stuff. People don’t understand, like at 20 years old I can do whatever I want. So I think I just had to realize that again.”
Her interview concluded with this flurry:
Question: So that [realization] didn’t have anything to do with the one boy being stupid?
Sloane Stephens: Oh my god, no. No. But that boy is stupid.
Q: You say you can do anything you want since you’re a 20-year-old. But when does it stop? When does the real world come in and insist you can’t do whatever you want?
SS: I don’t live in the real world, so I don’t know. But hopefully it never stops. I mean, there are no other 20-year-olds like me. Might be a few, like Miley Cyrus or something, but other than that, I’m pretty much riding solo on this train.
Q: Is it fun being Sloane Stephens?
SS: Always. Every day. It’s a blast.
FRENCH OPEN BUZZ: LOVE IS BLIND, TENNIS IS ETERNAL
WHAT AM I DOING?: Deep into Tommy Haas‘s four-hour-and-37-minute 7-5, 7-6, 4-6, 6-7, 10-8 win over marathon man John Isner, after he’d failed to convert 12 match points, broadcaster Gigi Salmon suggested that the German-American had to be thinking, “I’m 35 years old. Why am I still out here doing this?”
121: The total number of games John Isner played in his second-round match against Ryan Harrison and his third-round battle with Tommy Haas. The two matches were played within about 28 hours of each other.
HE’S GOT A POINT: Reflecting on the often chilly reaction to Victoria Azarenka, broadcaster Craig Gabriel said, “She just rubs crowds the wrong way, and it happens so often.”
AUDIO UPGRADE Promoters often lay out T-shirts, caps, or fans on the seats for ticket-buyers to enjoy. Some have suggested that before Victoria Azarenka’s loud matches, promoters place earplugs on spectators’ seats.
CRUEL COMMENTARY: When French TV cut to a shot of an even-scruffier-than-usual Redfoo—Victoria Azarenka’s spirited boyfriend—one semi-cruel voice in the press room muttered, “You know what they say, love is blind.”
AN ISNER DIALOGUE FROM HELL:
Broadcaster 1: “And now Isner is just two points from the match.”
Broadcaster 2: “Oh, don’t do that. You know what that means. That means we will be here for eight hours more.”
NOT EXACTLY CAMERA SHY: During his second-round doubles match Bob Bryan took a picture of of a ball mark. Earlier in the tournament, Sergiy Stakhovsky was fined for using his phone to do the same thing.