In a crowded pool of 128 participants, it’s easy enough to overlook the most dangerous swimmer until the finish line comes in sight and they reveal themselves.
Over the past ten days, we have marvelled at Serena’s curtailed comeback, Simona Halep’s steady progression, Maria Sharapova’s renewed conviction and Daria Kasatkina’s bag of tricks.
Not many words on Sloane Stephens however.
Thankfully for this writer’s reputation, or what little is left of it, I did mention the reigning US Open champion in my preview piece.
I suggested that the 25-year-old could “disrupt things”, but Stephens has done much more than that.
On Tuesday afternoon, the 10th seed coldy removed Kasatkina from the last eight in straight sets.
The young Russian, who drove Caroline Wozniacki bonkers in the previous round, could not outthink or outmanoeuvre the composed American. Stephens took just 70 minutes to dispatch the 14th seed with a loss of only four games.
Efficient destruction like this has been a hallmark of Stephens’ run to the semis.
The world no.10 has generally steamrolled opponents this year at Roland Garros, coughing up a handful of games each to Aranxta Rus, Magdalena Frech, Anett Kontaveit and Kasatkina.
Stephens’ toughest match was a three-set battle with the unpredictable Italian Camila Giorgi in the third round. While that bout lasted two hours and 26 minutes, the American has otherwise been in a hurry with her other matches usually over within the hour.
There are a number of reasons for Stephens’ superb results this fortnight.
The 10th seed has been very effective on serve. For a player who hardly chucks in her delivery, a ratio of 76% of first serves in play is excellent. Stephens also has a robust second delivery, leading the tournament with 69% of points won on the second serve.
On return, the American is the most destructive player in the field with an average of five service breaks gained per match. Away from the raw stats, you merely have to glance at Stephens’ play to get a handle on the gifts that she possesses.
At the top-end of women’s tennis, many players can be described as either tall power-hitters or smaller counter-punchers.
Taller players like Sharapova, Karolina Pliskova and Petra Kvitova have booming strokes, but more limited movement. While counter-punchers like Halep, Wozniacki and Angelique Kerber compete thanks to their court coverage, consistency and resilience.
Few players over the past 15 years or so have had a balanced combination of power hitting and exceptional movement. Serena and Venus, of course, fall into that category. Belgian greats Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters would also get a mention. And now we have Sloane.
Stephens’ footwork is so assured, her anticipation so natural, that she appears to glide around the court onto the ball. She makes defending look effortless. What makes her a major winner though, and potential no.1 should she have the application, is the ability to transition from retrieval to attack.
Stephens has more than enough juice on her groundstrokes, particularly that lethal forehand, to turn a rally and hurt any player in any draw. When you add to the mix her tactical skills, variety of shots and fine volleying – Stephens is the complete package.
That arsenal of weapons is why people have been excited about the American for a long time.
Stephens was an outstanding junior, who earned a combined world ranking of 5 and ended her final season on the circuit with three grand slam doubles titles.
She had a breakout season on the main tour in 2013 with runs to the last four in Melbourne, the last eight in Wimbledon and a career high ranking of 11. Grand Slam success then eluded her in the following seasons and 2016/17 was affected by a stress fracture to her left foot.
Stephens returned to fitness and found form in the summer of 2017, with semi-final runs in Toronto and Cincinnati before that maiden major in New York. After a slow start to 2018, the 25-year-old blew the field away in Miami to claim her first Premier Mandatory event.
This week in Paris, Stephens will face her friend and US Open final opponent Madison Keys in the last four. She leads their head-to-head 2-0 and is 3/5 to win on Thursday.
Should Stephens get the better of her compatriot once more, she’ll find herself in a seventh career final and second at a Grand Slam. If that’s the case, have some sympathy for her opponent.
Stephens has never lost a singles final at this level.
* All odds correct at time of posting.