French Open 2018: Sloane Stephens' final collapse could be a turning point in her career -- for the better

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Tennis, more than any other sport, is buoyed by tension and momentum. Epic matches are elevated by the suspense that can come with minute-long rallies and hour-long sets. 

Alternatively, sometimes matches serve sideways because one player finds a science and a sense to what the other is doing -- and then it's over.

That's what happened Saturday at Roland-Garros. The women's French Open final went to Simona Halep, the top-ranked player in the world, who won her first Grand Slam by rallying and overwhelming Sloane Stephens. Halep took the trophy 3-6, 6-4, 6-1. After losing her previous three attempts in Grand Slam finals, the Romanian has finally earned her first major championship. It was overdue and well-earned.

But the story of Saturday is how Stephens let her second Grand Slam title get away. After establishing herself as an American tennis star by winning the 2017 U.S. Open, Stephens looked -- at least for the first hour of the match -- in command and on her way to becoming a more prominent, respected force in women's tennis. 

"Not the trophy I wanted but it's still beautiful," Stephens said afterward, then pointed her words to Halep and said, "no one else I'd rather lose to than No. 1 in the world." 

Stephens, the highest-ranked American (No. 4 in the world) in women's tennis not named "Williams" since Lindsay Davenport was top-five a dozen years ago, got roped out of her comfort zone and was helpless to push back against Halep. In the end, the match resulted in the superior player winning. 

Halep in stride had Stephens grasping. After leveling the match at a set apiece, Halep looked sharper and more energetic in the first couple of games in the third set. It was a stark contrast to what Stephens was doing an hour prior, when she won 6-3 and then held a 2-0 advantage in the second set. 

Halep, down a set and a break, then made Stephens uncomfortable and proved why she's the best in the world right now. Halep's stamina and will to rally from being down a set is something that sets her apart from many of the best players in the world. Halep, who has owned the top world ranking for 31 consecutive weeks, remained composed, then steadied, then took over. Stephens couldn't play with the lead, and once the lead vanished, so did her edge. 

The match flipped definitively when Halep won nine consecutive points in the second set. 

It was strikingly similar to what Halep did against Angelique Kerber in the quarterfinals. 

"I just didn't calculate," Stephens said on NBC afterward. "I should've changed my game when I noticed she was changing hers."

Stephens handled defeat graciously. She's hitting her stride, and though it's come later than many thought, Stephens' prime might be now. You sense a confidence in her, an assuredness, which is hopeful. It's impressive, too, considering that she missed almost 11 months last year after requiring foot surgery. She is now slotted at No. 4 in the world. Losing a match like this could break a player's spirit. Stephens gets the opportunity to prove that blowing it against Halep won't be a downturn in her career. Perhaps it can come to define it.

If Stephens holds her high ranking and can make her way to more Grand Slam finals this year and beyond, this sort of loss could prove beneficial to her long-term outlook. 

If we're lucky, Saturday's Roland-Garros final will also signal the start of a good rivalry in tennis. Stephens in 25, Halep is 26. They might be able to do this for another half-decade if both remain healthy. Serena Williams is obviously going to be the biggest star in American tennis until her career is over. Stephens shouldn't be placed with any pressure to fulfill that void. But she can become a captivating figure in American sports on her own terms. 

Winning Grand Slams is paramount to that. Maybe losing Saturday winds up being the catalyst for increased success to come. 

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his eighth season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics,... Full Bio

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