In her first hard-court match since April, Simona Halep, the No. 2-ranked woman in the world, took a set to get accustomed to playing on cement again. Across the net, her opponent faced a steeper battle: In just her second tournament since an injury sidelined her for 11 months, Sloane Stephens was getting used to just playing tennis matches again.
Halep figured it out first. The highest-ranked woman to ever play Washington’s Citi Open, the Romanian dismissed the 2015 Citi Open champion, 7-6 (7-3), 6-0. The second set lasted just 25 minutes, less than half the time it took to play the first. Halep advanced to face Mariana Duque-Marino of Colombia, who eliminated American Shelby Rogers on Monday.
Stephens, meanwhile, twirled in frustration and groaned at her bench as unforced errors peppered the match (there were 48 between the two), just Stephens’s second back after suffering a stress fracture in a bone on top of her left foot that required surgery in January. She lost in the first round at Wimbledon and played World Team Tennis in the weeks after, but grinned Tuesday as she said, “It would have been more useful if I won some of those World Team Tennis matches.”
The 24-year-old, who once ranked No. 11 in world and now sits at No. 957, won just 12 points in the second set. She remains in the women’s doubles draw, paired with Canadian Eugenie Bouchard, but there were few positives from Tuesday to carry with her.
“Um, no. I was just like, ‘This is really hard,’ ” Stephens said, characteristically sardonic but in good spirits. “I was thinking about, wow, she’s No. 2 in the world and got that ball back. Not any, ‘I’m doing great.’ No. None of that.
“Coming back, you don’t really know what to expect from yourself, and I didn’t play badly — like, I played the No. 2 player in the world, I played a great first set — there just little things you have to deal with.”
At the start, Halep had those little things, too. But she served five aces in the second set and overcame a partial midday crowd at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center that was clearly pulling for the American.
Halep arrived for her first tournament in Washington the obvious favorite, having requested a wild card to both the Citi Open and Stanford’s tournament on the West Coast. She needed hard- court matches ahead of the U.S. Open, and Citi Open officials were more than happy to have her.
The 25-year-old played a sizzling spring-and-summer swing that would have been unimpeachable had she not failed to seize the No. 1 ranking on the three occasions she had the opportunity to. She would have taken the spot had she won the French Open (she lost to the vibrant newcomer Jelena Ostapenko in the final), outlasted then-No. 1 Angelique Kerber at Eastbourne (both lost in the quarterfinals), or made it to the semifinals at Wimbledon (she lost in the quarterfinals to Johanna Konta of Britain).
Still, the last time she was out of a tournament before the quarterfinals was in March at Indian Wells, Calif., and she won a title in Madrid since then as well. Her career total stands at 15.
“It’s not bad that I’m so close to No. 1,” Halep said. “But some people see the thing only that I’m not there yet. I see it a little bit different. I’m disappointed that I couldn’t, but I still see the positives. It’s important that I’m close. So I feel confident, but now it’s going to be something different with hard court, and I have to reset.”
Halep and Stephens share that sentiment. Though Halep truncated her comeback effort, Stephens will continue to attempt to restart her career and restore her mind and body. During her time away from the sport, she spent time in a heavy cast, then a walking boot and a scooter to help her get around.
She pitched in as a commentator for the Tennis Channel in March and had so much fun she said she might pursue broadcasting as a career when her playing days are over. But first, more tournaments are in order.
“I just have to play a lot of matches. I don’t know exactly how long it’s going to take me,” Stephens said. “But eventually, I will beat someone, so I’m not too worried about that. . . . As I play more matches and more back-to-back weeks, my fitness will be there, the conditioning, the match play. Eventually, it’ll all come together.”
Still chasing the No. 1 ranking, Halep hopes the same for herself.