French Open 2021: American women supporting each other as they compete with one another

The much-hyped third-round clash at the French Open between Americans Jennifer Brady and Coco Gauff didn't end the way either had hoped.

After Gauff won the first set in just 19 minutes, Brady retired with a foot injury, later revealing it was plantar fasciitis that first flared up at the Italian Open last month. The two shared a hug, and Brady apologized for not being to continue. Gauff applauded for Brady, who tearfully walked off the court.

While Saturday wasn't an example of either player playing at her highest level, Kathy Rinaldi, the head of women's tennis for the USTA and the captain for the Billie Jean King Cup team, believes that camaraderie and support have helped push all the American women to be their best.

"They're fierce competitors on the court, but then they walk off the court and are right back to supporting one another," Rinaldi said. "I think that's why the [American] women have had so much success: They have pushed each other and inspired one another, and it goes from generation to generation.

"It goes back to Serena [Williams] and Venus [Williams], and then it's Maddie [Keys] and Sloane [Stephens] and Jenny [Brady] and Jess [Pegula], and now you've got Sonya [Kenin] and Coco [Gauff]. When they see [a peer] reach the finals, like Jenny did this year or Sonya last year, they say, 'She can do this; I can too.' It just inspires everyone."

Ranging in age from 17-year-old Gauff to 39-year-old Serena Williams, eight countrywomen reached the round of 32 -- the best mark at Roland Garros since 2003. Six of them had to play matches against one another, and four ultimately advanced (out of a maximum of five) to the second week.

Gauff and Williams, as well as 28-year-old Stephens and 22-year-old Kenin, all remain and look to extend their stays in Paris during fourth-round play on Sunday and Monday. It will be Gauff's first fourth round at Roland Garros and Williams' 13th.

"I think, obviously, American women's tennis is in a really great place," Stephens said. "I think we all are having good results, and everyone is playing well. Obviously, you know, it's different. I think we're all friends, we're all very friendly, we all support each other. We all love seeing each other do well."

It has been a resurgent run for Stephens at the French Open. The 2017 US Open champion and 2018 finalist at Roland Garros struggled during last year's event, as well as during the start of the 2021 season. Stephens lost in her opening-round match in all three of the tournaments she played in Australia, including the Australian Open, and won just one match on hard court before the tour headed to clay. But she has had better results with the change of surface, including a quarterfinal run in Charleston and a semifinal appearance in Parma, and she has defeated a string of impressive opponents in Paris.

Two points away from losing to Carla Suarez Navarro, Stephens fought back for a 3-6, 7-6(4), 6-4 victory. She had no such struggles with Karolina Pliskova, the former world No. 1, in a straight-set win on Thursday and held off the challenging Karolina Muchova 6-3, 7-5 in the third round.

"She looks like she's on a mission to me," Rinaldi said of Stephens. "She's really been locked in, and she looks great. She's just playing really good, solid tennis -- striking the ball well, moving extremely well. Sloane has tremendous talent, and I feel like she kept building each week before coming here, so I'm not surprised."

Now Stephens is back in her first major fourth round since the 2019 French Open. She will face Barbora Krejcikova, who upset No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina in the third round, on Monday.

Count Chris Evert, a woman who knows a thing or 18 about what it takes to win a Grand Slam, among those who have been impressed with Stephens throughout the fortnight.

"If she continues to be aggressive and focused, she could win this thing," Evert wrote on Twitter on Saturday.

Should Stephens get past Krejcikova, she could potentially set up a quarterfinal clash with Gauff.

The teen phenom reached the fourth round in her debut Slam at Wimbledon in 2019, as well as the Australian Open in 2020, but Gauff has yet to reach the quarterfinals. Having won the singles and doubles titles in Parma last month and with straight-set wins in her first two matches, Gauff is more confident than ever.

"This is, I think, my [third] time in the second week of a slam, and I will say this is probably, like my journey to it, has probably been the most professional," said Gauff, who will take on Ons Jabeur on Monday. "[There have been] no, you know, unnecessary three-set matches and stuff like that. I think that you can tell that I'm improving and making smarter decisions on the court."

Kenin is also on the same side of the draw, and a semifinal clash between the 22-year-old and Stephens or Gauff is possible. After a breakout 2020 season in which Kenin won her first major title at the Australian Open and reached the final at the French Open, the new year hadn't been kind.

Kenin lost in the second round in Melbourne, fell to an unranked qualifier at the Phillip Island Trophy the following week and then needed emergency appendectomy two days later. She was winless on clay after playing in three tournaments before arriving in Paris, and Kenin announced she parted ways with her longtime coach -- her father, Alex -- last month.

But the fire has returned for the fourth-seeded Kenin in Paris -- and with it her signature on-court screaming, shrugs and never-quit spirit. She overcame 2017 French Open Jelena Ostapenko in three sets in the first round and took down back-to-back Americans in her next two matches with a routine win over 19-year old Hailey Baptiste and another three-set battle against Pegula on Saturday.

"I mean, you'll see her, she'll be talking to herself [in frustration], but then when she steps back up to that line, she's able to refocus quickly and let it go," Rinaldi said of Kenin. "She's already reset and onto the next point and is so mentally strong. Sonya's just really a tough, tough competitor and extremely solid and has that killer drop shot, one of the best in the business. Her focus and determination really just her apart."

Kenin, who will face Maria Sakkari on Monday, is the highest-seeded player remaining in the tournament, followed by Williams, who is on the other side of the draw.

Williams, the 23-time major champion has been in pursuit of tying Margaret Court's long-standing record since coming back from childbirth in 2018. With many of the other top players no longer in the tournament, including Naomi Osaka and Aryna Sabalenka in her draw, Williams has increasingly looked like a contender as the fortnight has progressed. She defeated American Danielle Collins 6-4, 6-4 on Friday.

"I think we're all friends, we're all very friendly, we all support each other. We all love seeing each other do well." Sloane Stephens

"Serena is getting better and stronger with each match here, and she looks great," Rinaldi said. "Her movement looks more comfortable, she was serving really big [against Collins] and she seems more confident, as well. Everything is improving the more matches she gets under her belt."

Williams will play Elena Rybakina on Sunday in the first career meeting between the two. A victory for Williams could lead to a rematch of her semifinal loss at the US Open against Victoria Azarenka. But Williams said she wasn't thinking past her next match.

"There's still a lot of matches, a lot of great players, as we can see," Williams said. "There's so much depth in this game now, it doesn't matter if you're playing in the first round or not, you really have to fight for every match and nothing comes easy."

Whether it be for a decorated champion like Williams or a relative newcomer like Gauff, there's never a shortage of incentive at a Grand Slam. But there has been extra motivation in Paris, as spots on the Olympic team are up for grabs. The top four ranked American players at the end of the tournament will make the squad. Kenin already secured her spot last month, and Williams and Brady are near locks, so Gauff and Pegula have been among a small group of players battling for that final position.

Stephens entered the French Open as the 11th-ranked American, and at No. 59 overall was three spots out of the ranking cutoff, but a tournament victory would give her the final berth. With Pegula's loss on Saturday, Gauff will otherwise make the team. (Williams, who is currently the second-ranked American and a four-time Olympic gold medalist, has expressed doubt over her participation recently, which could open up yet another spot. Two other women will be selected to participate in doubles and mixed doubles only.)

Of course, even with so much on the line, Rinaldi said they're still rooting for one another.

"What's amazing about this group is that they all obviously want to make the team, but they all genuinely want one another to make it too," Rinaldi said. "They're really just that thoughtful and considerate."