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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WATCH LIVE: French Open women’s semifinals on NBC Sports, streaming

Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens
AP
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An American not named Williams is guaranteed to make a French Open singles final for the first time in 17 years. Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys meet in the semifinals on Thursday, live on NBC and NBCSN and streaming on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Thursday.

NBC Sports coverage of the women’s semifinals starts at 11 a.m. across all time zones on NBC and 11 a.m. ET/8 a.m. PT on NBCSN.

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Stephens and Keys meet in a rematch of their U.S. Open final won by Stephens on Sept. 9. It’s the first French Open semifinal for both players. Stephens is already guaranteed to supplant Venus Williams as the top-ranked American when the rankings update on Monday.

The last U.S. woman other than Venus and Serena Williams to make a French Open final was Jennifer Capriati, who won the Grand Slam event in 2001.

The Stephens-Keys winner will play either No. 1 Simona Halep or No. 3 Garbine Muguruza in the final, live on NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Saturday at 9 a.m. ET.

Ted Robinson handles play-by-play for NBC’s coverage, joined by analysts John McEnroe and Mary Carillo. This is NBC’s 36th straight year broadcasting the French Open.

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Novak Djokovic upset at French Open; all-American women’s semifinal set

AP
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PARIS (AP) — Novak Djokovic’s neck was bothering him. Then his right leg was.

The way he faltered at the most crucial of moments in the French Open quarterfinals Tuesday might have hurt him the most against an opponent who never won a Grand Slam match until last week and once was handed a match-fixing suspension later overturned on appeal.

At the site of his 12th and most recent major title, which came two years ago, Djokovic was stunned by 72nd-ranked Marco Cecchinato of Italy 6-3, 7-6 (4), 1-6, 7-6 (11) in a rollicking match filled with long points and plenty of drama.

“He held his nerves amazingly well in important moments,” acknowledged Djokovic, who said he isn’t certain whether he will play at Wimbledon.

Djokovic served for the fourth set at 5-3 but got broken. He then held three set points in the tiebreaker but couldn’t convert any.

“It’s a pity I could not capitalize on the chances I had,” Djokovic said.

Cecchinato (it’s pronounced cheh-key-NAH’-toe) came through on his fourth match point, looping in a backhand return winner as Djokovic tried to surprise him with a serve-and-volley attempt. Cecchinato, who dropped onto his back on the clay after winning, is the lowest-ranked man to get to the semifinals in Paris in 19 years — and about as unlikely as anyone to get this far at a big tournament.

Cecchinato became the first man to go into a Grand Slam with no main-draw wins at any Slam and reach the semifinals since Dutch Cinderfella Martin Verkerk made the 2003 French Open final. He’s also the first Italian man to reach a Grand Slam singles semifinal in 40 years.

Told in an on-court interview that he wasn’t dreaming, Cecchinato responded: “Are you sure?”

The 25-year-old from Sicily was suspended for 18 months and fined 40,000 euros (about $45,000) by his national federation in July 2016, accused of losing on purpose at a lower-tier Challenger event in Morocco a year earlier. Eventually, the Italian Olympic Committee announced that sanctions were dropped on a technicality.

Cecchinato has never won a tour-level match on a surface other than red clay; as it is, he entered this season with a career record of 4-23.

He arrived at Roland Garros with a 0-4 mark in the majors, and dropped the first two sets in the first round before coming all the way back to win 10-8 in the fifth. Since then, employing a smooth one-handed backhand, he has beaten players seeded No. 8 (David Goffin) and No. 10 (Pablo Carreno Busta), before adding former No. 1 Djokovic to his list.

Next up: No. 7 seed Dominic Thiem of Austria, who made it to his third consecutive French Open semifinal by beating No. 2 Alexander Zverev of Germany 6-4, 6-2, 6-1 earlier Tuesday.

In the women’s quarterfinals, No. 10 Sloane Stephens beat No. 14 Daria Kasatkina of Russia 6-3, 6-1, and No. 13 Madison Keys eliminated unseeded Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan 7-6 (5), 6-4. Stephens beat Keys in the U.S. Open final last September, and their rematch on Thursday will be the first all-American women’s semifinal at the French Open since Serena Williams defeated Jennifer Capriati in 2002.

Cecchinato and Djokovic know each other well: They have practiced together in Monte Carlo, where Cecchinato trains at a tennis academy and Djokovic has a home.

No one, though, could have seen this one coming. Perhaps the most remarkable part of this result was that Djokovic repeatedly failed to close out the fourth set and force a fifth.

Djokovic, who missed the last half of 2017 with right elbow trouble and had surgery in February, is clearly not at the height of his power. Indeed, his seeding of No. 20 was his lowest at any Grand Slam tournament in a dozen years.

Still, Djokovic did appear to be gathering momentum, taking the third set and moving out to a lead in the fourth. He could not do enough to end Cecchinato’s marvelous run, though.

NBC, NBCSports.com/live and NBC Sports app coverage of the French Open continues with the women’s semifinals Thursday at 11 a.m. across all time zones.

French Open Semifinals
Women
(1) Halep/(12) Kerber – (3) Muguruza/(28) Sharapova 
(13) Madison Keys – (10) Sloane Stephens

Men
(1) Nadal/(11) Schwartzman – (3) Cilic/(5) Del Potro
Marco Cecchinato – (7) Dominic Thiem

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FRENCH OPEN: TV/Stream Schedule | Scores | Men’s Draw (PDF) | Women’s Draw