Baseline Buzz: Can Stephens beat Halep?

PARIS -- Sloane Stephens has received a fair amount of criticism for her lack of consistency. She has excelled at the Grand Slams, reaching the fourth round in six consecutive majors and the third round in nine straight. She has not done so well at the lesser tournaments, going one-and-done in five of them this year alone.

That has cost her in the rankings. Stephens has fallen from No. 12 at the end of 2013 to No. 19, though she remains the highest-ranked player to never advance to a tournament final. Obviously, her focus, adrenaline or emotion is higher on the big stage than at the lesser tournaments, though she repeatedly says she doesn't feel any difference and can't account for the disparity.

AP Photo/Michel Euler

Aside from Serena Williams, Simona Halep has quietly won more titles than anyone since the beginning of last season.

That sets up an intriguing fourth-round match Monday against Romania's Simona Halep, who has taken almost the opposite road here. Halep has won at the lower tournaments while struggling at the Grand Slams until recently. Up until last year's US Open, she had a string of nine Slams in which she didn't make it past the second round, including five first-round losses.

Halep has improved greatly on that the past three Slams and says it is because she handles the pressure on the big stage much better now. Her success recently on both levels has elevated her to a No. 4 ranking, the highest of any women left in this tournament.

So who will win Monday, Stephens or Halep? Or as Martina Navratilova put it, will "flash win over consistency"?

Jim Caple: I understand why people are critical of Stephens' performance in the other tournaments, but it's also a little odd in that we usually dump on athletes who wilt under pressure in the big games and praise the clutch athletes who rise to the occasion when championships are on the line. If Stephens' track record was just the opposite, we would be criticizing her for choking when the Slams come along and people care. Sure, you want someone who is in top form at all tournaments, but if you had to choose, wouldn't you want it this way instead of the opposite, especially if you were her accountant? As Stephens said, "Rather this than anything else."

Greg Garber: Halep's emergence is one of the most dramatic developments among WTA players. I spoke with Halep before the Sony Open in March, one year after she found herself with a 5-7 record and a ranking of No. 57. Three months ago, she had collected six titles and seen her ranking rise 52 spots. She told me how she had achieved that success. "I changed to be more aggressive on the court. And I was more relaxed; that was the secret," she said. "I want to fight for every point, but also to enjoy the match. Last year in Rome, when I injured my back, I had some very, very tough moments. I said to myself, 'I have to be happy I can play tennis and relax.'" Since then, she has lifted her ranking to No. 4 and is the favorite to come out of the bottom half of the draw.

Caple: She is definitely playing well, winning eight singles titles since the start of last year while Stephens has zero for her career. Halep is just 22 but has experienced enough that she considers herself much older than Stephens, who is only a year younger. I asked Navratilova to compare the two. "They are two completely different personalities, the way they are and the way they play the game," she said. "Sloane is a little more outgoing and flashy with her demeanor as well as her game while Halep is just kind of taking it slowly. She's a real student of the game, very studious. She has a definite game plan for everybody and approaches the match with the same attitude, which is why she is more consistent."

Garber: Halep is only one year older than Stephens, so the difference in their experience is that one year that saw Halep mature practically overnight. I would be willing to bet that Stephens will follow suit. At 21, she is basically the age of a typical junior in college. How mature were you at that juncture, Mr. Caple? Stephens has gotten used to fielding questions about this strange disparity between majors and non-majors. "I don't know. Like I said, if I had an answer, I would definitely let you guys in on something," she said. "I just peak at four tournaments a year. Every other tournament, I guess, just gets me ready for these."

Caple: Well, I was very mature my junior year of college. Why, I even showed up on time for most of my classes and often remembered to bring a pen. Then I started my sports writing career and ... well, no need to go into that. You're right, though. We need to bear in mind that Stephens just recently turned 21. She is still young and learning. Perhaps we expected her to make the jump to the next, elite level too quickly. But the fact that she can handle pressure and enjoys the big stage is a good sign once she can get the consistency thing down. Or perhaps she just needs to be as judicious in her headband selection in the lower tournaments as she is in the Slams. She said she has about 250 headbands. I think that tops McEnroe's career record.

Garber: In the final analysis, I think Stephens was unfortunate to beat Serena Williams in the Australian Open quarterfinal a year ago. It might have been just a tad too much too fast. Certainly, going forward, Stephens has had issues focusing on the mundane tour stops in places like Charleston, Bogota and Strasbourg -- where she lost her first match; in the latter two, she was deposed by the No. 129 and No. 108-ranked players in the world. With coach Paul Annacone in her corner after a coaching stint with Roger Federer, you know her learning curve is going to accelerate. This is a wonderful test to see where she is.

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