Sloane Stephens into French Open final by winning all-American semi

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PARIS (AP) — 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.”

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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.

Ever.

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.

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Weekend Gymnastics Roundup: Carey and McCusker on World Cup podium

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World medalists Jade Carey and Riley McCusker headlined gymnastics action over the weekend as the World Cup circuit continued with an all-around competition in Birmingham, England, and an apparatus event in Doha, Qatar.

Carey won both the vault and floor events in Doha, pushing her to the top of the standings on both apparatus (she also won the vault and floor competitions the previous weekend at the World Cup in Baku, Azerbaijan).

Doha marked the halfway point of apparatus World Cups, putting Carey in a promising position to qualify for the Tokyo Games heading into the next four events. The apparatus World Cup series includes a total of eight competitions spread over two seasons, and one gymnast per apparatus will qualify for the Olympics based on his or her top three results across the eight events.

Carey, 18, was the 2017 world silver medalist on vault and floor. But she opted not to try for a spot on the 2018 World Championships team due to the International Gymnastics Federation’s rules that active team members who help their countries qualify team spots for Tokyo (as the U.S. women did in November) cannot earn individual spots. Carey, an apparatus specialist rather than an all-around gymnast, chose the World Cup route to keep open her options of qualifying individually.

McCusker, who was part of the U.S. team that won the world title last year, finished second at the all-around World Cup in Birmingham, posting the top scores on the uneven bars and floor. Russia’s Aliya Mustafina, a seven-time Olympic medalist, won the event. Mustafina bounced back from a shaky showing last weekend at the World Cup in Stuttgart, where she finished fifth in an event won by Simone Biles. Mustafina, 24, is trying to qualify for her third Olympics after giving birth to daughter Alisa in June 2017.

The all-around World Cup circuit continues on April 7 in Tokyo, Japan, where two-time world all-around medalist Morgan Hurd and two-time Olympian Sam Mikulak are expected to compete.

First Olympic women’s aerials champion Cheryazova dies at 50

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MOSCOW — Lina Cheryazova, the first woman to win an Olympic aerials skiing gold medal, has died. She was 50.

Officials in the Russian city of Novosibirsk, where Cheryazova was living for the last two decades, said she died “following a lengthy illness,” without giving further details.

Competing for Uzbekistan, Cheryazova won gold with a triple flip when aerials skiing debuted on the Olympic program in 1994 in Lillehammer.

Shortly after winning, she learned her mother died three weeks before.

Cheryazova’s career was derailed later that year when she suffered a serious head injury while training in the United States, and spent days in a coma. She retired after failing to qualify for the 1998 Winter Olympics.