PARIS, France - Ahead of the Roland Garros final, one statistic appeared to favor Sloane Stephens more than any other: the American's perfect 6-0 record in title rounds, with just one set dropped.
For a set and two games, the pattern held: the No.10 seed's tennis was impenetrable on defence and judiciously aggressive as, once again, she had brought her finest form to the most important match. But as Simona Halep fought and thought her way back into the match, Stephens fell away, losing 12 out of the last 15 games to end up, for the first time, in the position of runner-up.
Afterwards, the 25-year-old was disappointed but, as ever, unfazed. "I'm fine," she said. "She just raised her level and started playing better. Sometimes it happens when you play against an opponent... Not much you can really do about that. I competed the best I could, and the better player won the match today.
Nonetheless, there were plenty of positives for Stephens to take from the match. "I'm not satisfied, but I am proud of myself," she emphasized. There were a number of points the US Open champion felt she had proved with her Parisian run - not least the spectacular rapidity of her comeback from foot surgery. Less than a year after first returning, Stephens has added a Grand Slam trophy, a Miami title and now a Roland Garros runner-up plate to her cabinet.
Asked to sum up her year in one word, Stephens said: "Perseverance, maybe?" Expanding, she continued: "Just keep going when the going is tough. Just always believe in yourself when other people don't believe in you."
There was also that small matter of the new World No.4's record at home versus abroad. Following her Miami title, her 12-month record on North American hard courts had been a magnificent 24-4 - but elsewhere in the world had been 0-9. This spring in Europe, Stephens changed that. "Can I just state for the record that all of you guys in here were tweeting that I had a losing record anywhere except for the United States," she admonished the media afterwards. "So I think I have done very well to make the finals of the French Open. So if any of you want to tweet that, I would be very happy to give you guys a a retweet or something."
— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) June 7, 2018
The American also had congratulatory words for her opponent - the third consecutive first-time Slam champion in a row, a run Stephens had kicked off herself. "I think she's had a tough journey," she said, referring to Halep's three prior lost major finals. "I think winning here is very special for her and I'm glad she finally got her first slam. It's a beautiful thing, very special. No matter how hard the adversity that you go through, there is always light at the end of the tunnel, and I'm glad she finally got her light.
"It's a great story and just a great moment for her, and you can only support the other person and be happy for them. Because if it was the other way around, I know that it would be reciprocated."
In the ceremony, Stephens also won fans when she motioned for Halep to raise the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen above her head for the cameras. "Show the world your trophy!" she explained her gesture afterwards. "You have been waiting for this. So you better put it up in the air and show them what you got today."