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For player and Council member Sloane Stephens, tennis is serious business at Roland Garros
In fine form on court and behind the microphone, Stephens spoke out about the some of the biggest issues pervading the WTA circuit and just how much has changed since she played in Paris for the first time in 2011.
Published Jun 03, 2023
TENNIS CHANNEL LIVE: Stephens has been flourishing on clay this spring.
PARIS—"I thought tennis was for fun, right?”
Sloane Stephens has spent the last five minutes discussing the delicate and constantly evolving situation regarding the war in Ukraine—and the fallout that continues to affect players from across the globe. A member of the WTA Players’ Council since 2019, Stephens has become one of the go-to voices, ready to comment on the most controversial issues pervading the tour.
Almost always, anyway.
“I would just prefer not to answer,” she said when asked about the Roland Garros night sessions, which have featured only men’s matches through the first week. “Obviously your statement says it there, four out of four men's matches,” she added of a total that has extended into six out of six. “That's not what we talk about. That's not what we're about.”
(Since this story was originally published, it was announced that Stephens would take part in the first women's singles night session on Court Philippe Chatrier on Sunday, playing No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka).
Stephens is more illuminating after edging into the second week with a hard-fought win over Yulia Putintseva, a player she has known since their junior days. After a match against the Russian-born Kazakh one night in Cincinnati, she flatly broke down the game of a rival known for her histrionics: “If it’s not one scam, it’s another.”
“I feel like when you play someone your age, it's always the toughest match,” she elaborated on Friday. “When you're playing someone older than you or way younger than you, there's always a different dynamic, but I always say the closest matches are the matches when the people played juniors together or are from the same country that know each other really well. That I think is the hardest person to play.
“Even if the person is ranked 50 spots below you, if you grew up practicing with that person, the match is going to be so much harder than if you were playing the No. 1 person in the world.”
The American was agonizingly close to No. 1 only a few years ago, peaking at No. 3 after reaching her first Roland Garros final in 2018, but has struggled with inconsistencies in the years since, leaving the 30-year-old not only looking to catch up with her peers but face the encroaching onslaught from the likes of teen sensations Coco Gauff and Mirra Andreeva.
“I think that's the hardest thing now,” she mused of 16-year-old Andreeva, “playing the up-and-coming juniors because, like, there was COVID and so there isn’t a lot of video and tape on these younger players that played juniors. Their junior careers were kind of nonexistent at their peak time when they would have been winning a junior slam and you would have seen them a lot.
“For instance, I saw a ton of [Amanda] Anisimova, a ton of Coco [Gauff], a ton of Leylah [Fernandez], because when I was in the finals here, Leylah and Coco, I think, were in the finals here playing each other or in the semis or something. Anisimova and Coco played in the finals the year I won the Open.
“I think seeing them a lot more when they came on tour was a little bit easier to understand their games, but now that these younger girls, I don't know where they're coming from.”
Stephens has little time to meditate on the past, anyway. Playing her 11th Roland Garros main draw and in solid form after winning a WTA 125K title in Saint-Malo, she would be better served by staying in the present and the opportunity in the fourth round against No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka.
I feel like on the council we try to make everyone happy and make everyone feel safe and everyone feels that they are a part of our tour and loved and cared for. Sometimes that just doesn't happen. Sometimes there are just rules and regulations and decisions that are made that are not in our control. I think a lot of the times our players maybe feel that they're not spoken for, but I don't think that's the case. Sloane Stephens
“Obviously she's been playing some great ball this year,” she said of the reigning Australian Open champion, “even though she's been going through a lot.”
Where Stephens held court over a group of enrapt journalists, the Belarusian Sabalenka retreated from traditional media access after repeated questions about her stance on the war in Ukraine, which culminated in a shouting match between her and a Ukrainian journalist on Wednesday.
“I think everyone should feel safe and comfortable in their press,” said Stephens. “And I feel like if that's not the case, then it was right for her to remove herself and do what's best for her.”
Safety for all has been a top priority for the Players’ Council, particularly as the tour prepares a return to Wimbledon, which barred Sabalenka and her fellow Belarusian and Russian athletes from competing in 2022. While they will be permitted to compete as neutrals at the Championships in July, they will be required to sign a declaration of neutrality in the wake of the continued Russian and Belarusian invasion of Ukraine.
“Everyone is being affected no matter what side you're on, right? I can't say, ‘Oh, Wimbledon made a good decision or a bad decision,’ but now that we're in a different place a year later, that was always the concern: What happens next? Do our players feel comfortable on the other side, the players that have to sign a waiver or whatever it is, do they feel comfortable? Do they feel that their families are comfortable and safe doing that?
“There's a lot of different things that surround that that are not obviously spoken about enough,” she adds, noting the various aide the Council has spearheaded for Ukrainian players in tandem with the Women’s Tennis Benefit Association. “Again, the main point is for our players to feel safe and comfortable and for it to be a fair competition and everyone be able to play.”
Mature and measured, Sloane still knows how to have fun, dramatically rolling her eyes at the idea that she was at all plugged into the state of the women’s draw, which has since lost No. 3 and No. 4 seeds Jessica Pegula and Elena Rybakina—"I’m not even sure what side of the draw I’m on!”—and bursting with admiration for all Paris has to offer, even if she’s yet to grasp the language.
“I'm on my 290th day on Duolingo,” she boasted before a deadpan: “speaking Spanish.”