Sloane Stephens was born in Florida and developed her tennis game in the heat and humidity on the hard courts of the Sunshine State.
But she could have fooled anyone watching her in Paris this week.
With her continued dominance on the red clay and latest triumph at the French Open — securing the ninth fourth-round appearance of her career at Roland Garros with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 victory over Yulia Putintseva — Stephens looks more than at home on the surface.
Stephens, 30, has repeatedly called clay her preferred surface, as well as the French Open her “favorite tournament.” Because she won the biggest title of her career at the 2017 US Open, this might seem surprising, but her overall results at the Parisian major more than support her claims. She reached the French Open final in 2018 and the quarterfinals twice since then, including 2022.
Stephens has been plagued with inconsistency throughout her career and hasn’t reached a Grand Slam fourth round outside of France since 2019, but always seems to raise her level at the year’s second major.
“I love playing on red clay, and I know every time I get to this tournament, it’s time to play,” Stephens said on court after the win on Friday. “So excited to be here, excited to be playing on red clay, on my favorite surface and my best surface.”
Americans have traditionally struggled on the surface, in large part because of its unfamiliarity. Clay courts found in the United States tend to be green, which play quicker and are more like a hard court, and few get much experience on the red clay prior to becoming professional. Serena Williams was the last American to hoist the trophy in Paris in 2015. No man from the U.S. has won it, or even played in the final, during this century.
Following her win on Friday, Stephens is now tied with Jennifer Capriati for the fourth-most round of 16 appearances by an American woman at the Slam in the Open Era. She is behind only Williams, Chris Evert and Venus Williams.
After a disappointing start to her 2023 season, including a first-round exit at the Australian Open, Stephens didn’t fare much better at either of the 1000-level events on clay. But she refused to get discouraged and pivoted to tournaments she might not otherwise play. She won the 125K title in Saint-Malo last month and reached the semifinals at last week’s Morocco Open, saying both tournaments gave her some much-needed confidence.
Of course, her season record on clay hasn’t seemed to matter much for Stephens in the past. During the lead-in for the 2022 French Open, she failed to record a single win on clay in the four tournaments she played — and she still went on to reach the quarterfinals in Paris.
With a game already well-suited to clay, Stephens credits the slowness of the court for allowing her to stay calm throughout the match. She was dominant against former world No. 1 and former Roland Garros semifinalist Karolina Pliskova for a 6-0, 6-4 victory in her opening-round match, and was equally in control against Varvara Gracheva — who defeated her in straight sets in March — for a 6-2, 6-1 win in the second round. Her third-round clash against Putintseva started out similarly but then her level began to dip. She needed a decider to find her way back to the second week, but there she gave Putintseva few chances and rolled to the win.
“I knew today was going to be a battle no matter what, and I knew I was going to grind,” Stephens said in a postmatch interview. “I couldn’t get frustrated, I just had to come out and play my game and stay steady. I’m happy I did that.”
Stephens is equally comfortable off the court in Paris as well. While she doesn’t speak French — she does however have a nearly 300-day streak for Spanish on Duolingo — she loves everything the city has to offer, from the food to the beauty products. A few weeks ago, her mom joined her in Italy and has remained with her. Stephens said that has helped her during her long stretch away from home.
“My mom and stepdad came to Rome and we did the full tourist thing,” Stephens said in an interview on the Tennis Channel on Wednesday. “We had a good reset. I ate pizza like four days in a row … I think when you enjoy your tennis and you enjoy going to work every day, it kind of changes everything in your life. And I feel like most of the time, I’m having a good time, but you can definitely tell [on court] when I’m not having a good time.”
She undoubtedly has been having a good time in Paris so far, but getting back to the quarterfinals won’t be easy. While experience is on her side, she will need to defeat a red-hot Aryna Sabalenka, the No. 2-ranked player in the world and reigning Australian Open champion, on Sunday. Sabalenka won the title in Madrid and has yet to drop a set in Paris.
Stephens seemed to recognize the challenge when speaking to the media on Friday but was looking forward to it.
“Obviously [Sabalenka has] been playing some great ball this year, even though she’s been going through a lot,” Stephens said. “It’s obviously another opportunity to go out there and play and try to make the quarters of a Grand Slam. Who doesn’t want to do that?”