The Billie Jean King Cup is currently on pause because of the global pandemic, but it looks and feels like it’s actually playing out at Roland Garros.
The Americans are winning, and winning big.
They began the French Open with 19 players in the main draw, more than any other country. An even dozen made it to the second round – the most in Paris in three decades – and by Thursday eight had moved into the third round, the most since 2003 (nine). That’s an impressive 25 percent of the 32 players left in the draw.
“It’s all coming together for the Americans,” Pam Shriver, ESPN analyst and 22-time Grand Slam doubles champion said. “I think they’re thriving off each other’s energy and results. I don’t think they feel the pressure the way they do at the US Open and Wimbledon. On the red clay, expectations are not as high.”
Still very much in play: No.4 Sofia Kenin, No.7 Serena Williams, No.13 Jennifer Brady, No.23 Madison Keys, No.24 Coco Gauff, No.28 Jessica Pegula, and unseeded Sloane Stephens and Danielle Collins.
Serena, of course, has won an Open Era record 23 Grand Slam singles titles, but there are two other major champions in that group – and four of them have made major finals.
Kenin won the 2020 Australian Open and advanced to the final last fall at Roland Garros, losing to Iga Swiatek. Brady was a finalist opposite world No.1 Ashleigh Barty at the Australian Open back in February, while Keys was a finalist at the 2017 US Open. Stephens won that Open final, and a year later reached the final at Roland Garros.
Thursday, when she took down No.9 seed Karolina Pliskova, Stephens again displayed that eerie calm, the poise – and that winning smile – that carried her to those high places.
A few months ago, outside of the Top 50 for the first time in four years, she was, oh, so low.
“I had Covid,” she told reporters in Charleston, “I lost three people that were very close to me. I’m in Australia, I literally had to go to my grandparents’ funeral on Zoom, and I just was not ready to play.”
Stephens, who was in hard quarantine in Melbourne, lost her first four matches of the year. Her first victory came in Miami, in late March, and then the clay – and some time to reflect and heal – brought her game back.
“My happiness isn’t really determined by wins and losses,” Stephens said. “It’s more of how I feel when I’m playing, in my competitiveness and me wanting to be out there. And when I’m literally talking to grieving counselors and psychologists and all these people all the time because I’m a mess, that doesn’t really have anything to do with my tennis. It’s more of just that I’ve gone through a lot.
“And to just have the expectation of, `Oh, I’m going to get out there and kill it,’ like, that’s not going to happen, right?”
Stephens won three matches at the Volvo Car Open Charleston and was forced to qualify in Rome before losing to Keys in the first round.
In her first match at Roland Garros, Stephens came within two points of losing to Carla Suárez Navarro, herself an uplifting comeback story. Stephens prevailed, 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4 – and then came back to beat Pliskova 7-5, 6-1. It was her first Top 10 win since beating the Czech at the 2018 WTA Finals.
“I know she can play still no matter which ranking she is now,” Pliskova said afterward. “No matter which situation she is in now I think she can still play great tennis. I knew it was going to be super difficult and dangerous.”
Stephens is only 28 years old, but this is her 10th main draw at Roland Garros. She’s a former World No.3 with a new perspective.
“So I think being happy on the court and being able to train and get back to what I was doing before and enable myself to have good results is what I really had to kind of realize,” she said. “In order to have good results, you have to practice. You have to get out there, you have to have the time, you can’t be crying.
“Life happens, you know? And I think that letting life settle and dealing with it and then trying to play tennis is the best way to go.”
Stephens draws her second straight Karolina from the Czech Republic; this time it’s Karolina Muchova, who is seeded No.18, in a match to be played Saturday.
There are also three All-American contests on the board: Williams-Collins, Kenin-Pegula and Brady-Gauff.
Collins is playing her first tournament in two months following surgery for endometriosis.
“She’s also a really awesome person off the court,” Serena said of Collins. “I love seeing her in the locker room. Ideally it would be great if we didn’t have to play each other, because I always want her to do super well.”
In their most recent match, Serena needed a super tiebreaker (10-6) to beat Collins in the Yarra Valley Classic.
The Kenin-Pegula matchup is another tossup. Kenin erased a 0-2 career deficit earlier this year with a three-set quarterfinal win at the same Melbourne 500 event.
Kenin snapped a 0-4 streak on clay with a first-round win over 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko and is now 9-8 for the season.
Gauff, who turned 17 in March, continues to be a revelation.
After beating Wang Qiang for the second time in a week – 6-3, 7-6 (1) – she has 23 match-wins in 2021. Only Barty (28), Aryna Sabalenka (26) and Veronika Kudermetova (25) have won more.
Gauff saved her best tennis for the tiebreaker with Wang, winning six of seven points – one of them on a thrilling Marat Safinesque, running single-leg backhand crosscourt winner.
As of Wednesday, she and Sabalenka had the fastest women’s serves so far this fortnight, at 119.3 mph (192 kilometers)
The last one in was Brady, who survived Frenchwoman Fiona Ferro – and a raucous, singing crowd on Court Simonne Mathieu – 6-4, 2-6, 7-5. It’s her best showing ever at Roland Garros.
In their only previous meeting, Brady defeated Gauff 6-2, 6-2 last August in the Lexington semifinal.
The good news? At least three Americans will get through to the second week’s Round of 16. The bad news? Three will go down at the hands of their fellow Americans.
“Serena’s legacy is massive,” Shriver said, “but it’s good to see Sloane and Madison reestablishing themselves. And to see Pegula totally comfortable with her rise in the rankings. Coco has straightened some things out with her forehand and serve.
“It’s all good. I’m excited to see how far they can go.”