Sloane Stephens brings it for big stage

PARIS -- Sloane Stephens easily handled most every shot Ekaterina Makarova sent across the net in Saturday morning's third-round match, beating the lefty in straight sets 6-3, 6-4. Adequately answering the persistent question reporters asked her in the French Open interview room, however, posed more of a challenge.

As has been heavily discussed, Stephens is far more successful in Grand Slams than in lesser tournaments. She has reached the fourth round in the past six majors, which no other woman can claim. She also has reached the third round in her past nine majors. On the other hand, she has gone one-and-done in five other tournaments this year and has never reached the final in any tournament -- she is the highest-ranked player with that dubious distinction.

AP Photo/David Vincent

Sloane Stephens had her Grand Slam game face on as she rolled into the fourth round.

This topic, naturally, comes up at each news conference. What is different about the Slams? Why do you play better in the majors? Do you get more pumped up on the big stage? There are clay-court specialists and hard-court specialists, are you perhaps a Grand Slam specialist? For God sakes, just explain why the hell you are so good when the entire world is watching but not when they're busy binge-watching "Walking Dead" instead?

No matter how often the question is asked or how it is phrased, Sloane is unable to provide an explanation. Asked no less than six times after Saturday's match, Stephens gave pretty much the same stock answer.

"I don't know," she said. "Like I said, if I had the answer, I would definitely let you guys in on something."

Well, how about if we phrase it this way...

"Like I said, same question, I do not know, you guys. I do not know"

You would be better off asking someone to solve Fermat's last theorem. On the other hand, her next opponent, Simona Halep, did have an explanation for the disparity between her own play in Slams and in other tournaments.

Halep has risen to No. 4 in the world by winning the lower tournaments -- eight since the start of last year -- despite a lesser record in the majors until very recently. Before finally reaching the fourth round at last year's U.S. Open and the quarters at this year's Australian, Halep lost in the first round five times and didn't get past the second round in her previous nine majors.

"For me, the Grand Slam is different because I feel more pressure here," said Halep, the highest-ranked woman left in the tournament. "We have four Grand Slams, and I just now started to manage the emotions like every tournament. I don't want to take this one more different."

"For her, I think she's played really, really well in the smaller tournaments, like I haven't done, and she has a lot of experience with that," Stephens said. "I have a lot of experience here."

Perhaps the two just need Hoosiers coach Gene Hackman to bring out a tape measure to show them the courts are the same size regardless of whether they're playing at Roland Garros or at the Hickory High invitational.

But hey, if you're going to be inconsistent, it's better to play your A-game in the tournaments that matter -- and pay -- the most rather than the ones few people notice. Or does the inconsistent approach hurt you in the long run?

AP Photo/Michel Euler

Simona Halep says she's confident she can take revenge against Stephens as retribution for the last time they met.

"It hurts you, but that's where all the attention is now," Martina Navratilova said. "Players zero in on the Grand Slams. That's where all the money is, all the hoopla. Some just get more fired up for that and don't care about the rest of the tournaments. Personally, I think it's a mistake, but that's the way the game has become. It's almost like regular season doesn't count as much as the playoffs. And we have the playoffs four times a year."

The two players have faced each other twice before, most recently at the 2013 Australian Open, where Stephens beat Halep 6-1, 6-1. Stephens said that was too long ago to recall in detail, but Halep definitely had it on her mind.

"I remember that she's very strong," Halep said. "She moves well, and she's a great player. She's very young, and she's playing good tennis at this moment. So it will be tough. I expect a tough match, but I have confidence in myself that I can take the revenge."

Very young? Stephens, 21, is just a year younger than Halep, 22. "We're like the same age," Stephens said. "We played juniors together."

Halep has gone a little further since then. Two years ago, Stephens was ranked 38th and Halep was 47. At the end of last year, Stephens was 12 and Halep 11. Now, Halep is 4 while Stephens has fallen to 19.

"Simona made a meteoric rise the last years," Navratilova said. "She's been the more consistent player. The way she approaches the sport is more consistent. Sloane seems to be turning it on and off. That only gets you so far. They both have a great opportunity in this tournament. They play each other, and it will be interesting to see whether the flash wins over the consistency of Halep."

And whether reporters can conjure another way to phrase the lingering question at the news conference.

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