Last year, 25-year-old Sloane Stephens, with a difficult start to her 2018 season, entered " and exited the Australian Open with a string of eight losses, despite having won the US Open only months before.
Even though the start to her 2018 clay season was less than ideal, the 25-year-old American, who had never even made the quarter-finals at Roland Garros before, reached the finals, facing Simona Halep. Up a set and a break against the Romanian former No 1, Stephens would eventually finish runner-up at the tournament regardless.
But clay, according Stephens herself, has long been her favourite surface to play on. She had an unimpeded run to the final last year, having dropped only a single set, and this year in Madrid, she took out the in-form Petra Martic in singularly convincing fashion before her eventual semi-final loss to a powerful Kiki Bertens.
The year 2018 may have started poorly for her, but then again, she turned it around to make the clay-court Slam final, following that up with two solid performances at the Fed Cup on clay, defeating not one, but two strong clay court specialists " Pauline Parmentier and Kiki Mladenovic, the latter a two-time Grand Slam title holder. Stephens' defeat of Mladenovic was convincing and quick " 6-2, 6-0 " especially big considering Mladenovic was the 2016 French Open doubles champion.
She's been in excellent touch in the past two tournaments in terms of her physical form and on-court movement, and now has brought on Sven Groeneveld, one of the most successful clay-court coaches of all time.
After having spent the past few months of 2019 without any official coach, Stephens announced only weeks ago that she would be bringing on the expertise of coach Groeneveld.
A background: Who is Sven Groeneveld, and why is he a great fit?
One of the most experienced coaches in the business, Netherlands-born Groeneveld makes perfect sense as a hire for Stephens, particularly for her run through the clay, given the long list of clay-court champions in his charge.
In more recent years, Groeneveld was most famously, perhaps, the coach of former No 1 Maria Sharapova, coaching her to the 2014 title at Roland Garros, and has worked with some of the best clay-courters in the business. Groeneveld also coached the former top-ranked Ana Ivanovic to her only Grand Slam title, the 2008 French Open, and her subsequent World No 1 ranking.
Interestingly, of all the players Groeneveld has been involved in training, only two have not won French Open titles. Between all of the players the Dutchman has coached, they have 10 clay-court titles, with former World No 1s Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Ana Ivanovic and the biggest of them all, Monica Seles among his charges. Mary Pierce, 2000 Roland Garros champion, was one of Groeneveld's charges as well.
It's safe to say that Groeneveld, a full-time coach since 1991, has a wealth of experience in coaching, particularly with clay-court specialists, a factor that Stephens, a junior French Open winner in doubles, likely had in mind when she hired him. The Groeneveld-Stephens association, too, goes back a long way. Stephens was in the Adidas young players' development program as a child, a program that Groeneveld was significantly involved in.
Why Stephens and Groeneveld is a great combination?
Stephens, though not an aggressive player, is a counterpuncher with the ability to vary shots and confuse opponents, a tactic that, particularly in an era of seemingly consistently aggressive shot play, could be very useful. But for Stephens, it appears that this year is a different battle. Her matches make one thing clear " the American does not lack for skill in any way, shape or form: Her struggle has been with consistency, and that has been a trend particularly over the past few years. Following her 2017 US Open title, Stephens was unable to win a single match for the remainder of the season.
Stephens' topspin-heavy, powerful shots are made for clay, and her athleticism " particularly on display in her Madrid match against the red-hot form of Martic, who had won 10 of her 11 previous matches, has been at its best. Her game right now is on a level particularly suited to the Terre battue, but it is consistency that the young American has been trying to flesh out.
Her quarter-final exit to best friend Madison Keys on the clay courts of Charleston was followed up by a semi-final finish in Madrid, and her clay results so far this year have already been if nothing else, much more consistent than her hard court run. She already has all the tools and materials needed to make a clay-court champion, but she needs that one thing that can take her from "close to the title" to the title itself.
Bringing on Groeneveld, whose charges have a staggering nine French Open singles titles among them, brings a level of clay-court expertise for Stephens, who is on the cusp of clay-court greatness, but has not quite been able to break that one barrier just yet.
Given also the fact that Groeneveld coached Ivanovic to World No 1, he also brings with him the ability to help Stephens build the consistency " her biggest weakness, and work on taking her over the finish line, particularly going into an open French Open 2019, one that has no clear-cut clay-court specialists " where the title is anyone's for the taking, and Stephens could well be one of the takers.