Paris — When the French Open final was played a year ago, Sloane Stephens was nowhere near Roland Garros. She was in Chicago with coach Kamau Murray, working her way back from a foot injury that required surgery and sidelined her for 11 months.
“Indoors on a hard court. Getting ready for grass. Barely walking. Playing tennis next to a bunch of 5- and 6-year-old screaming kids,” Murray recalled. “So to be here from there, I think, is rewarding, because those times were not easy.”
The times are good now. Stephens closed in on her second Grand Slam title by beating pal Madison Keys 6-4, 6-4 on Thursday in the first all-American semifinal at the French Open since 2002. It also was a rematch of the U.S. Open final won by Stephens last September.
“It’s always hard playing someone from your country and such a good friend,” Stephens said, “so I was really pleased to be able to get through that and play some good tennis.”
The 10th-seeded Stephens’ opponent in Saturday’s final will be Simona Halep, who emphatically ended the impressive French Open run of 2016 champion Garbine Muguruza by defeating her 6-1, 6-4.
Halep, who assured herself of retaining the No. 1 ranking with the victory, earned a fourth chance to win her first major title.
She twice has lost in the final at Roland Garros — to Maria Sharapova in 2014 and to Jelena Ostapenko in 2017 — and was the runner-up to Caroline Wozniacki at the Australian Open in January.
“I lost three times until now and no one died,” Halep said, “so it will be OK.”
Muguruza, a two-time major champion, entered the semifinals having not lost a set in the tournament. She also was coming off a lopsided victory in the quarterfinals a day earlier, overwhelming Sharapova 6-2, 6-1.
But it took Muguruza quite a while to get going against Halep, who managed to keep sending ball after ball back over the net.
Backed by fans who loudly chanted her first name between games, Halep went ahead 3-0 with the help of only one winner. Of her first 14 points, 13 arrived via errors by Muguruza — nine unforced, four forced.
It was 5-0 by the time Muguruza eventually claimed a game.
Muguruza’s last stand came at 4-all in the second set, a 13-minute game in which she held three break points. But she failed to convert any of those, and Halep held there, before breaking at love to end it.
While the Romanian sometimes has trouble with so much on the line, Stephens has been perfect in title matches on the WTA tour, going 6-0.
“I mean, there is no formula. I didn’t, like, try to do it. I’m not trying to break a record. It’s just how it’s happened for me,” Stephens said, “I think once I get going in a tournament, I’m pretty consistent, which is good. I just try to keep that going.”
She had never made it past the fourth round on the red clay of Paris until now. This year, she was two points from defeat in the third round against Camila Giorgi of Italy before turning that match around.
Stephens hasn’t dropped a set since.
“When you make it out of that,” Murray said, “you build a little bit of confidence.”
Like Halep, Stephens is an incredibly talented defensive player, and she kept stretching points Thursday until Keys would err.
In all, Keys made 41 unforced errors, 30 more than Stephens.
“It’s really tough to get any ball by her, but especially today, she was neutralizing so well. And she was hitting so many deep, heavy balls, that I really felt like I was having to go for a lot,” said Keys, who is now 0-3 against Stephens.
“There is a lot of times where I feel like she made the ball by a centimeter,” Keys continued, “and I was missing it. Just one of those days where I think she played incredibly well.”
There was a stretch after winning the U.S. Open that Stephens did not manage to do that.
She endured an eight-match losing streak after leaving New York, going 0-6 for the rest of 2017 and then 0-2 to begin 2018, including a first-round loss at the Australian Open.
“Life came at me fast after the U.S. Open,” said Stephens, whose late father, John, was the 1988 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year with the New England Patriots.
She regrouped and got headed back in the right direction. At the Miami Open in March, she won the title, beating four major champions in a row.
Now she stands between Halep and her first Grand Slam trophy.