Stephens wins clay-court title, and questions surround Nadal and Djokovic

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While speaking to the media during a news conference in Miami last month, Sloane Stephens admitted she didn’t know how much longer she would be playing professional tennis. The 31-year-old said she still had goals she wanted to achieve but spoke about her career largely in the past tense.

But on Sunday, in the final at the inaugural WTA 250 Open Capfinances Rouen Metropole in France, Stephens proved she’s far from done just yet.

The 2017 US Open champion won the eighth title of her career, and first in over two years, with a 6-1, 2-6, 6-2 victory over Magda Linette. It capped off an extraordinary week that saw her defeat former top-10 players Caroline Garcia and Karolina Pliskova. While she had largely cruised into the final — dropping just one set in four matches — she had to dig deep and needed six match points to pull off the comeback against Linette. Ultimately, she got the job done in two hours and 10 minutes.

While she has long been known for her prowess on the surface and reached the French Open final in 2018, it marked Stephens’ first title on the red clay and first indoors.

“Coming here was kind of a last-minute decision, so I’m really happy to be through and win another title,” Stephens said. “It’s my first title indoors, I think, so that’s really nice and really cool, and just a really nice way to start off the clay-court swing.”

Here’s what else you might have missed from around the tennis world last week:

Ruud awakening

Casper Ruud has played in three major finals and been ranked as high as No. 2 in the world, but somehow he had never won a title higher than a 250-level, the lowest tier of ATP events. Until Sunday, that is.

In the final at the 500-level Barcelona Open, Ruud defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas 7-5, 6-3 for his 11th ATP trophy and the biggest title of his career. He had lost all seven of his previous finals at 500-level or higher events, and the win came just seven days after Tsitsipas beat Ruud in the Monte Carlo final, making the triumph even sweeter for Ruud.

“This has been worth all the wait,” Ruud said. “All the finals I’ve lost have been tough, disappointing of course, but every time you reach a final it’s nonetheless a good week, so you can’t be too hard on yourself.

“But this one’s been a long time coming, and super happy to do it here in Barcelona in front of a packed stadium today, and on Rafa Nadal Court. It’s special to me as I looked up to him all my childhood and came here myself as a 13-year-old boy to watch him and the others play here, so it’s a great feeling.”

Ruud celebrated the milestone — and his first title of 2024 — by doing a cannonball into the pool on site. As you do.

Rybakina’s new ride

A day after ending Iga Swiatek’s 10-match win streak, Elena Rybakina secured her third title of the season with a 6-2, 6-2 victory over Marta Kostyuk in the Stuttgart final.

Rybakina, who also won at Brisbane and Abu Dhabi this year, needed just over an hour to seal the victory and cap off her latest impressive tournament run. Rybakina played three sets in all three of her matches heading into Sunday. But she left nothing to chance with the trophy on the line against Kostyuk, who had defeated a trio of top-10 players during the week, including Coco Gauff in the quarterfinals.

Rybakina, 24, now has won a tour-leading 26 matches this season — and also leads in titles and final appearances (5) — and the Stuttgart result further bolstered her confidence as the French Open approaches.

“I always believe in myself, of course, but it’s not only depends on me,” Rybakina said, according to the WTA. “There are a lot of great players, tough opponents. But I know if I feel fresh, if I’m physically ready, healthy, I’m playing my game, of course I have all the chances to win a Grand Slam on any surface.”

As is tradition at the tournament, Rybakina was gifted a Porsche from the event’s title sponsor. But there was just one tiny problem: She doesn’t have a driver’s license. So instead of getting to drive off the court in her new ride, Rybakina sat in the passenger seat and was driven out.

She previously said this might be the motivation she needed to finally get her license. In the meantime, she said her mom and her coach could take turns driving her new car.

If at first you don’t succeed

Entering the BMW Open in Munich, 33-year-old Jan-Lennard Struff had never won an ATP title and had an 0-3 record in finals.

But Struff stormed through the draw — defeating the likes of Felix Auger-Aliassime and Holger Rune, both in straight sets — and advanced to the final. And on Sunday, playing in front of a supportive home crowd, Struff seemed unfazed by his past record or results. He defeated Taylor Fritz 7-5, 6-3 to win his first ATP tournament.

Winning the trophy just days before his 34th birthday, Struff became the third-oldest first-time champion in ATP history.

“[It feels] unbelievable, and to do it on home soil is just incredible,” Struff said on court after the match. “I waited so long. I’m 33 years old and played so long on tour. It’s just an amazing feeling to do it here in Germany.”

His early birthday celebration nearly included two titles, but he and partner Andreas Mies ultimately fell in the doubles final later in the afternoon.

Rafa’s return

After 681 days since he had last competed on clay, Rafael Nadal officially made his return in Barcelona. It was his first match since sustaining a muscle injury in Brisbane at the start of the season.

The 37-year-old was victorious in his opener, defeating Flavio Cobolli 6-2, 6-3 before falling to Alex de Minaur in the second round. While not the outcome he wanted, Nadal seemed grateful to have been able to play and expressed optimism about the rest of the clay season.

“The main thing today was not necessarily to win but to come out feeling good from this tournament, and that’s what happened,” Nadal said after the loss to de Minaur. “Sometimes it’s difficult to play when you know that you maybe can’t fight all the way to the end of the match, which was the case today. But I hope to be able to do that in a few weeks … That’s the way that I need to proceed today and to give me a chance to be ready at least to compete at Roland Garros.”

Nadal, who was sidelined for most of 2023, has previously said this will likely be his final year on tour, and it’s clearly made playing at the French Open one last time his ultimate goal. The 14-time Roland Garros champion said he was planning on playing in Madrid and Rome prior to heading to Paris.

Djokovic withdraws

While Nadal will be in the draw in Madrid this week, his longtime rival Novak Djokovic will not: The 24-time major champion and current world No. 1 withdrew from the 1000-level event over the weekend.

It’s been a challenging and unexpected season for Djokovic. He has a 9-3 record so far and has yet to win a title. He lost to Ruud in the semifinals in Monte Carlo in his last tournament earlier this month. Djokovic has not said if he plans to play in Rome, the final clay tuneup ahead of the French Open.

But it seems as if Djokovic is more vulnerable on the court than he has been in years. And each loss only makes players less intimidated and more convinced they can beat him.

“I think what really motivated me and helped me a bit today was that I thought about [that] he lost a match in Indian Wells to Luca Nardi, and he showed there that he’s also vulnerable sometimes,” Ruud said after his victory over Djokovic.

And now one of the biggest questions as the year’s second major quickly approaches has to be: Can Djokovic regain his dominant form and get his season back on track?

Garbine’s goodbye

After a career that saw her win the titles at Wimbledon and the French Open, as well as reach the world No. 1 ranking, Garbine Muguruza announced her retirement from the sport on Saturday during a news conference in Madrid. The 30-year-old had been taking an indefinite break from competition and hadn’t played a match since January of last year.

“I feel that it is time to retire and open up a new chapter in my life,” Muguruza told reporters.

One of the most decorated Spanish women in tennis history quickly was saluted on social media by several of her compatriots, including Carlos Alcaraz, Carla Suarez Navarro and Paula Badosa, who credited her for inspiring her own tennis career.

“You were the mirror where I looked at myself since I was little,” Badosa wrote in Spanish. “Thank you Garbi for giving so much to Spanish tennis.”

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